While pundits and the press witter on about whether C.S. Lewis' ageless tales of Narnia are too Christian, or not Christian enough, or the wrong kind of Christian, children the world over will yawn politely and read on. I must have devoured The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at least 10 times while growing up in an aggressively Anglican culture, and it never once occurred to me that Aslan the super-lion died the death of Christ and was similarly resurrected. Nor would it have bothered my little Jewish soul had someone set me straight. The thrill of Narnia is all about a fusty old closet that turns out to be full of frostbitten foliage and possibility, in which your drab brown life, with all its vague fears and longings, gives way to a sparkling white alternate universe where kids just like you take tea with those of cloven hoof and warm brown pelt; where good and evil (give or take the odd Judas within your midst) are more cleanly defined and divided than ever they are in life; and where freshly minted heroes do battle to defrost the world for freedom.
Lewis may never have mastered fantasy like his friend and rival J.R.R. Tolkien, whoseLord of the Ringswas a special-effects bonanza waiting to happen. But Lewis understood far more clearly that character drives even the most supernatural of stories, and Shrek's Andrew Adamson, who has never made a live-action movie until now, honors that old-fashioned insight while proving himself a fine director of flesh-and-blood kids to boot. Except for Tilda Swinton's razzle-dazzle White Witch, who gets her own computer-generated polar-bear sleigh drivers and freezes adversaries at will with her long, shapely fingers, the special effects inThe Chronicles of Narniaaren't exactly to die for. The faun's hooves look glued-on; the bickering beavers (cutely voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) are straight out of Disney; the battle scenes no more than capable. More problematically, Aslan (Liam Neeson), a photo-realist creation with a touch of stuffed toy about him, is a sight cuddlier than Lewis—who favored roaring, vengeful deities—would have approved of.
But the four young actors who play the children (especially Georgie Henley, a poised munchkin who brings a warm brio to the pivotal role of little Lucy, whose innocence drives the story) make a gratifyingly solidary ensemble, and it doesn't hurt that William Moseley's Peter, the once and future king of a free Narnia, is quite the ringer for Britain's bonnie Prince William. By staying focused on the children—frightened evacuees from the London Blitz whose parallel war in Narnia both taps into and finally quiets their unspoken terrors—Adamson keeps faith with the humanity of Lewis' tale. And if Narnia according to Adamson is more a democratic war on crypto-fascist totalitarianism than a holy war against the non-Christian barbarian, I for one won't be filing a complaint.