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‘Narnia’ studio’s mature approach to kid flicks

Christian-backed Walden Media's films prove that moral uplift doesn’t have to be boring or preachy.

Let me be the first to admit that, on paper, the very idea of production company Walden Media makes me skittish. For one thing, it’s owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who’s given lots of money to the Republican Party and to anti-gay causes like Colorado’s Amendment 2. Add to that the fact this mega-rich Christian conservative wants the films that come out of Walden “to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message” and all my warning buzzers go off.

So how is it that I’ve become such a fan of Walden Media’s films?

It helps, certainly, that they’ve become one of the most consistent sources for great kids’ movies. In the last five years, the company has produced such contemporary classics as “Holes,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (with the second “Narnia” movie, “Prince Caspian,” hitting theaters on May 16), “Charlotte’s Web,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “The Waterhorse,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and, a personal favorite, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”

These are not movies that underestimate young viewers: Children contend with poverty, families aren’t always a source of security, characters die. Let me repeat that last one: Characters die. Kids’ media has so often been rendered toothless over the last few decades, for any number of reasons — alarmist parents, the success of “Home Alone,” product placement, you name it — that it feels refreshing and exciting to see movies that assume that kids can handle the tough stuff. If the best literature aimed at this age group doesn’t pull punches, why should film?

And given Anschutz’s stated agenda for the company, it’s relieving to note that Walden movies don’t feel like a trip to Sunday school. Yes, the Christian metaphors of C.S. Lewis’ work make it into the “Narnia” movies, but not in a way that beats you over the head. Heck, “Bridge to Terabithia” features a young girl who’s being raised in an agnostic household, but even though she visits a church service and finds it fascinating, the movie doesn’t force her to accept Jesus or judge her for not doing so.

Strong female role modelsThese films also feature bright, outspoken, courageous young female characters who are excellent role models for girls. Conservative Christian groups from the Promise Keepers to the so-called “ex-gay” ministries often stress a “traditional,” submissive paradigm for women, but the girls in “Narnia,” “Terabithia,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Nim’s Island,” among other Walden titles, are too dynamic to hide their girl power under a bushel.

And in an era when even liberals like me find kids’ movies to be too snarky, too cynical and too obnoxious, it’s a relief to discover movies that let children be children. My married siblings often share stories of having to take their kids out of movies like “Barnyard” because of their age-inappropriateness, but I feel generally secure recommending them to the Walden films because there’s not going to be icky innuendo or pop-culture references that will go sailing over their children’s heads. Mind you, the young leads in the best of these films are fascinating, flawed, three-dimensional characters; turns out there really is a middle ground between tediously saintly and irritatingly savvy.

The company also has a knack for finding the best books aimed at young people and then doing justice to those stories in a screen adaptation. The annual KidFilm festival in Dallas, which I once ran, holds weekday screenings for students featuring short films based on popular storybooks. Almost every teacher evaluation form that came in afterward raved about how seeing the movies made the children want to read or re-read those books. And in an era where kids’ lit seems to begin and end with the legendary Harry Potter series, it’s encouraging to think that young moviegoers will head to the library or to to stock up on C.S. Lewis or E.B. White or Katherine Paterson after seeing these stories writ large (and well) on the big screen.

Granted, nobody — with the possible exception of Pixar — hits it out of the multiplex every time. Anyone who sat through “Around the World in 80 Days” (Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan, together at last!) or “Hoot” or “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” would acknowledge that Walden has made its share of duds. And while I thought Abigail Breslin was just great in “Nim’s Island,” the movie itself seemed cobbled together from spare parts of other, better films. (But what do I know — “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” was among my favorite films of 2007 while other critics bashed it with their heaviest clubs.)

In its own way, Walden is filling a niche for Christian moviegoers who thought “The Passion of the Christ” was at the forefront of a cinematic revolution. Heeb magazine recently reported on the absence of similar films to follow in the wake of Mel Gibson’s monster hit, and four years later, it’s beginning to look like “Passion” was more of a fluke than a game-changer. But as the dwindling audiences for heavy-duty, Bible-thumping movies like the “Omega Code” and “Left Behind” series prove, you can’t literally preach to the choir and expect to turn a profit.

What you can do, as Walden has proved, is make top-flight entertainment that both kids and adults will enjoy watching, stressing basic human values like decency, courage and compassion rather than attempting to proselytize your audience. Here’s hoping the company continues to strive for that balance.