Previously filmed several times for television, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” finally gets the blockbuster big-screen treatment, reportedly to the tune of $150 million in production costs.
Inspired by the success of “Lord of the Rings,” it’s a spectacular translation of the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, with moments that are genuinely magical and mysterious. Yet in the end it comes off as a “Lord of the Rings” wannabe, complete with makeup, special effects and New Zealand locations that seem less inspired by Lewis’ story than by the “Rings” movies.
The Disney-sponsored “Narnia” sometimes plods when it should soar, relying too much on familiar confrontations between good and evil to lend it urgency. The more famous actors, including Tilda Swinton as a homicidal witch, Jim Broadbent as a dotty professor and Liam Neeson as the voice of the heroic lion, Aslan, never have quite enough to do.
The most effective scenes are those that embrace the childhood wonder of the youngest character, Lucy (Georgie Henley), who first discovers the fantasy land of Narnia by entering an ancient wardrobe in the professor’s country home. She’s been evacuated to the country, along with her older siblings, to escape the bombing of London during World War II.
Edmund (Skandar Keynes) follows her into the wardrobe and the land of talking animals, and eventually the older kids, Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), are lured into Narnia, where they’re regarded as the fulfillment of a prophecy. It seems that only “two sons of Adam” and “two daughters of Eve” can defeat the witch, who regards herself as Narnia’s queen.
But Edmund, who resents his older brother and is addicted to the witch’s brand of Turkish Delight, ends up betraying his siblings by allying himself with the witch. He’s rescued and redeemed by Aslan, who then sacrifices himself.
Aslan, who preaches forgiveness, resurrects the dead and hints at a Second Coming, has often been called a Christ figure. The Disney folks, mindful of the success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” are using Gibson’s marketing methods to appeal to a churchgoing audience. At the same time, they appear to be hoping that the Christian allegory is subliminal enough that fantasy-oriented mall audiences won’t notice.
Like Lewis’ book, the movie has already inspired spirited debates about its religious overtones. One of the more interesting arguments (outlined in a New Yorker piece last month by Adam Gopnik) is that Aslan isn’t much of a Christ figure because he starts out at the top — as a lion king, rather than as a lamb or donkey who grows in spiritual stature.
That’s certainly a problem with the movie. Although Neeson delivers a regal performance, Aslan is not a character who changes much in the course of the story, and he seems rather distant. The kids are the ones who undergo a life-altering experience.
The director and co-writer, Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”), relies largely on them to carry the film and lift it above its less inspired stretches. Henley, who’s had less experience than any of her fellow actors, is especially fresh and charming.