The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Walt Disney Pictures, PG)

The sacrifice scene is something to behold, a Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life. The first installment of C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s fantasy saga charges to the screen in fine form, thanks to Shrek director Andrew Adamson and a cast of unknown child actors whose inter-sibling rivalry keeps the story going until the remarkable scenes of sacrifice and battle that provide the film’s climax.

That should come as a welcome surprise to the book’s many fans and movie industry watchers, since there were many reasons to be nervous. First, the driving force behind the film is Walden Media, a conglomerate that has recently stormed into Hollywood, bringing wholesome family entertainment to movie screens with decidedly mixed results (the enjoyable Holes followed by the useless treacle of Around the World in 80 Days and Because of Winn-Dixie). Then, the producers hired a director who had worked exclusively in computer animation. Finally, the script was ground out by two screenwriting teams whose most illustrious prior product was last year’s Peter Sellers biopic. Nevertheless, despite the questionable pedigree, the final result is tremendous.

The story follows four London siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—sent to the country home of an eccentric professor to escape the German aerial pummeling of London. Bored, the children find an old wardrobe that is really a gateway to a magical land, Narnia, filled with fanciful creatures and ruled by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who has plunged the land into eternal winter. The arrival of the four children causes quite a stir among the magical creatures and talking animals in Narnia, as a prophecy foretells the breaking of the witch’s power and a return of Narnia’s absent king, Aslan, with the arrival of four human children. The good animals and creatures of Narnia rally around Aslan and the human children and prepare for a climactic battle against the Witch and her allies.

The story functions on multiple levels. First, there is the thrilling, if straightforward, tale of the good creatures rising to defeat evil, and the ways in which the four children mature through the journey and battle. There are also the strained relationships between the children. Eldest Peter wants to join the army, like his father, and has trouble following his mother’s instruction to care for his younger siblings. Susan is probably more sensible than Peter, and chafes at the fact that he is the one to whom everyone defers. Dour Edmund sulks at his second-son status. Precocious Lucy is never taken seriously, especially when she announces that the old wardrobe leads to a magical land. Finally, there is the Christian teaching that author Lewis intentionally weaved throughout: Aslan’s sacrifice to redeem Edmund, the breaking of the old covenant, the resurrection and creation of a new covenant, etc.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they stay close to Lewis’ story and intentions. Some diversions are nods to the modern world: Gone is one character’s admonition to the girls that “battles are ugly when women fight.” Some diversions are nods to Hollywood convention: a dull, predictable chase sequence as the children and their friends flee the queen; Mr. and Mrs. Beaver becoming wisecracking comic relief, a lá Donkey in Shrek. The filmmakers did add a fantastic opening sequence of German bombers streaking over London. They also brilliantly realized Lewis’ two show-stopping sequences: Aslan’s delivering of himself to the White Queen, and the final battle. The sacrifice scene is something to behold, a Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life. The final battle sequence is also stirring, if a little long (as epic battle scenes can be). Even the daylight battles in the Lord of the Rings films had a dark, surreal cast to them. With the Witch’s power waning, and summer on the march in Narnia, their final battle is shot in bright, summer daylight and involves exotic creatures, real and magical, of every description.

A largely faithful rendering of Lewis’ endearing work, only enhanced in its transition to the silver screen, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a stirring time at the movies and should be given priority in the busy holiday season, especially by middle-school kids and their parents.

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