Book two of C.S. Lewis’s famed Chronicles of Narnia gets the epic adaptation treatment a la Peter Jackson’s interpretation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. The book was deeply steeped in Christian religious ideology and the dated patriarchal themes of World War Two England. The film foregoes this and the result is a rousing action epic with a healthy dose of good feeling. Family films are usually disappointing, but ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is a grand success. It entertains on all levels with a skillful blending of story and incredible visual effects.

The plot begins with the four Pevensie children leaving war torn London for a professor’s sanctuary in the country. Peter (William Moseley) is the oldest and feels it’s his responsibility to look after the family. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is the next in line and the motherly figure of the group. She’s the voice of reason during their travails in Narnia. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) is the mischievous one that resents his older brother’s authority. Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the youngest and most curious. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers the wardrobe closet that is the gateway to the mythical world of Narnia. She tells her brother Edmund and they both enter the gateway to disastrous results.

Edmund, while separated from Lucy, accidentally meets Jadis (Tilda Swinton), the evil White Witch and despised ruler of Narnia. He betrays the secret of the wardrobe and the whereabouts of his sister. Jadis has been searching for the four Pevensie children. An ancient prophecy predicts her downfall at the hands of ‘two sons of Adam’ and ‘two daughters of Eve’. She kidnaps Edmund as a lure to catch his siblings. Peter, Susan, and Lucy brave the dangers of Narnia to recover him. They become allies with Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the great Lion of Narnia. The Pevensie’s soon find themselves at the center of a great war. They must defeat the evil Jadis and take her place as the rightful rulers of Narnia.

Fantasy films live and die by their ability to successfully sell the world they create. Narnia is a completely convincing and utterly absorbing setting. Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) and his team of effects wizards really hit a home run with their production design. Narnia is a magical place, but has a sense of realism that adds volumes to the believability of the story. They don’t waste time with elaborate CGI backgrounds. They focus their efforts on the photo-realism of the digital characters. The result is a seamless integration of mythical creatures that are among the best I’ve ever seen. Aslan the lion, as an example, is an amazing site to behold and a great cinematic achievement.

The family theme resonates strongly in the film. The Pevensie’s stick together and fight for each other at all times. Their bond is palpable. We feel their terror and apprehension as they search for their missing brother. I was particularly fond of Lucy’s character. The young actress that plays her, Georgie Henley, does a phenomenal job selling the wide-eyed wonder of her character. William Moseley, who plays Peter, will probably garner the most acclaim. He begins the film a boy and ends it as a man. Peter becomes the leader of Aslan’s army and engages in heroic, swashbuckling duels. He becomes the center of the film and carries it astonishingly well.

My only real fault in the film is the run time. It clocks in at a whopping two hours and twenty-minutes. There are periods of drag that many children will find hard to sit through. I understand the filmmakers emphasis on a literal adaptation, but cuts could have been made to help the pacing. The book itself is very short, a speck when compared to the gargantuan Harry Potter novels. A trim here and there would really have propelled Narnia to classic status. It’s very good as is, but could have been great. Not to be missed in the theater, Narnia is the best family film of the year.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is out December 7, 2005.

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