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The Chronicles of Narnia

The film begins with the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. German planes are dropping bombs on London and the Pevensie family -- a mother and her four children -- run for cover in their bomb shelter. With the father off fighting the war and the bombings growing more intense, Mrs. Pevensie (Judy McIntosh) feels that it's no longer safe for the children to remain in London. So she reluctantly sends them off to the country where she hopes they will be safe. The children, two boys and two girls, arrive at the country estate of Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) and his stern housekeeper that the kids refer to as The MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne). The children's boredom on a rainy day leads them to play a game of hide-and-seek. While seeking the perfect hiding place, little Lucy (Georgie Henley) discovers a large wardrobe in an empty upstairs room. As she tucks herself into the back of the wardrobe, she suddenly finds herself in a snowy other world where she meets a half-man, half goat faun called Mr. Tummus (James McAvoy). He explains that she has entered Narnia, a place thats been in frozen in a chilly winter for a hundred years, ever since the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) declared herself queen.

When Harriet re-emerges from the wardrobe, her siblings refuse to believe her strange tale. But then they end up entering the wardrobe and discovering the magical world of Narnia for themselves. They also discover that they have a role to play in Narnias future. They are part of a prophecy stating that when humans arrive in Narnia, they will bring an end to the Witch's evil rule. So in avoiding the war of the real world, the children end up fighting in a battle for Narnia.

The Chronicles of Narnia has been brought to the screen by director and co-writer Andrew Adamson, a New Zealander with a background in visual effects and prior directing gigs on the Oscar-nomitaed Shrek movies. His co-screenwriters are Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. And the project has the blessing of Lewis stepson Douglas Gresham who serves as a co-producer. The result of their work is a solidly crafted, well-acted, family friendly film. Its chief charm lies in the interaction of the children and the strange, mostly animal, creatures of Narnia. With state of the art visual effects from the U.S. and New Zealand, the film creates creatures that convincingly inhabit the screen with live actors and even engage in conversation. A pair of chatty beavers (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) and the magnificent lion Aslan (Liam Neeson providing the wonderful vocal talent) are the most endearing and impressive.

But director Adamson's approach may be too pragmatic to make the film as magical as it could be. The press materials describe the film as "a stunningly realistic, painstakingly authentic adaptation of C.S. Lewis masterpiece." That proves to be a fairly accurate description and it also alludes to where the film comes up short, and that's in the realm of magic and imagination. Many of the scenes look like they were shot on a sound stage rather than in a fantastical world. The cinematography is crisp, clear and far too practical -- everything is in focus, everything is neatly framed. We are shown a lovely fantasy world but it feels a bit manufactured. What compensates for this shortcoming, however, is the wonderful Georgie Henley -- she's a delight and she makes us see Narnia through Lucy's amazed, innocent eyes. So even if we feel like she's walking through a fake forest, she convinces us that we are in fantastical world of Narnia.

There has been much made of the story's Christian overtones and of Disney's attempt to target Christian audiences. As an essayist and author, Lewis did write about Christian theology and moral problems. He wrote science fiction tales that were Christian allegories of good and evil, and elements of such allegory are also evident in his Narnia books. But Adamson's film doesnt choose to play up the Christian themes. They are definitely there but they can also be ignored. Disney's marketing approach may seek out Christian audiences but that has less to do with what the film's about and more to do with Disney's wishful thinking about tapping into the big box office potential Mel Gibson mined with his Passion of the Christ.

The Chronicles of Narnia (rated PG for material that may not be suitable for young children) captures the essence of Lewis books and offers enjoyable family fare.

Companion viewing: Shadowlands, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Shrek