At a Christmas party four years ago, I chatted about fantasy films with a relative who happens to be an evangelical Christian. He explained that he liked The Lord of the Rings because of its spiritual themes, but drew the line at Harry Potter "because of the occult." I couldn't pin him down on the distinction: why student witches with magic wands and elfin friends were bad, but bearded wizards with magic staffs and elfin friends were OK.
Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien had impeccable credentials as a devout Catholic, and the film trilogy sprinkles religious imagery here and there, but I have trouble buying The Lord of the Rings as a Christian allegory. (Frodo, the ring-bearer, effectively takes human sinfulness on his shoulders, but he ultimately falls to temptation in his quest to destroy it.) There's no such ambiguity with the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien's close friend and contemporary. The series sews religion into its very fabric.
In essays such as "Mere Christianity," Lewis found mass appeal with the Christian populace, but readers of all ages and beliefs can enjoy the Narnia series for its charm and wonder, without choking on the churchy content. Alas, trying to stay faithful to Lewis gives the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a tone that's as unwieldy as its title. In trying to present a whimsical fairy tale that's also a violent war epic, that's also a Christian allegory, Narnia falls a little short of being a divine experience.
During World War II, the four young Pevensie siblings flee from London to escape the combined blitz of German bombs and Enya music. The children make their new home in an enormous country mansion. While playing hide-and-seek, the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), steps into a mysterious wardrobe: She backs up amid the fur coats, then feels pine needles with her fingers and snowy ground beneath her feet.
Narnia's first half nicely balances the supernatural with a wry British understatement that feels like the book come to life. Finding herself in another world, Lucy bumps into a goat-footed faun, whom James McAvoy plays with a winning blend of amazement and self-conscious sheepishness -- no pun intended.
Soon the rest of the children -- eldest Peter (William Moseley), teenage Susan (Anna Popplewell), and moody Edmund (Skandar Keynes) -- end up in Narnia and are greeted as saviors by the native population of talking animals and creatures from legend. Unfortunately, Edmund falls under the sway of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who allures him with Turkish Delight, then turns him against his family. Though the youthful leads are cute and earnest, they're also a little vanilla. Thankfully, Swinton energizes the proceedings, especially with her wicked blend of seductiveness and motherly sympathy before the Witch reveals her cruel intentions. With her dark eyes and angular mouth, Swinton's characters always seem on the brink of going barking mad.
Under her 100-year rule, Narnia has endured perpetual winter but no Christmas. (The Witch probably mandates teaching evolution in school as well.) That's not the film's only hint of religious parable. The natives call the children "sons of Adam, daughters of Eve" and a familiar, jolly gent who drives a sleigh and gives presents in December turns up in a cameo. Most of all, there's the beatific figure of Aslan, a regal lion serenely voiced by Liam Neeson. A vaguely supernatural figure, Aslan cultivates the best virtues in his followers/worshippers and makes a noble sacrifice in a nightmarish sequence comparable to a passion play.
Director Andrew Adamson comes from the Shrek movies, and perhaps Narnia would've fit animation more comfortably. Though it constructs memorable images, such as Edmund stepping into the Witch's ice palace, the literal realism of live action throws Narnia off balance. The scary mythological monsters seem to belong in a different movie than the bickering, comedic Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French, respectively). The incongruities can bring unintentional laughs: When the Witch tells her general, a bull-headed Minotaur, "Prepare your troops for battle," he raises his head and bellows, "Moooo!"
Narnia builds to an enormous, competently staged battle that's unique in cinema. Both armies consist of bizarre menageries, so you have, say, centaurs and cheetahs fighting Cyclopes and polar bears. You've never seen anything quite like it, and Adamson keeps the bloodshed to a minimum, but with the countless stabbings and crushing impacts, the combat feels inappropriately grown-up.
Narnia loses one of the book's most memorable sequences, when a laughing Aslan frolics with Lucy and Susan. The scene wouldn't fit amid the armed struggles, but it reveals Lewis' most appealing attitude toward religious faith. Being a true believer can contain a joyous, playful element and amount to more than submitting to a list of "thou shalt nots." It's a telling omission: As much as Adamson hews to the letter of Lewis' book, he ultimately finds the transcendent spirit elusive.