Ten months after director Andrew Adamson told a small audience of pastors and educators on the Disney studio lot in Burbank, "I want to be very faithful to the book," the burning questions for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments) moviegoers are these: Was Mr. Adamson faithful to his venerable source? And, equally important, has he made a good movie?
The answer to the second question is an enthusiastic, "Yes!" The answer to the first question is a more complicated, "Sort of."
A brief recap of the story: The young Pevensie siblings are packed off to a country estate while London suffers under the German Blitz during World War II. There, the bored kids-Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (eldest to youngest)-discover a mysterious wardrobe in the old dusty manor home that leads them all to a land called Narnia.
Narnia, the children learn, is ruled by an evil witch who keeps the realm in a perpetual state of winter-a winter with no hope of spring, or even Christmas. Narnia is populated by all manner of mythical creatures and the two Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, it turns out, have a unique role to play in fulfilling a prophecy that will break the witch's spell and end her reign.
If the storyline is by now well-rehearsed, it remains full of childhood excitement and wonder. Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien's more fully formed Middle Earth, Narnia is a hodgepodge of characters and sequences that wonderfully mirror the way a child's mind works, combining familiar elements from our world with fantastical creatures from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. All of this is wrapped in the warmth of Lewis' vital Christian faith, which creeps into the story not so much by way of direct allegory as in transcendent truth understood and applied in an imagined world.
How well does that childlike wonder come through in the film? Mr. Adamson says that Wardrobe couldn't have been made prior to recent improvements in motion picture technology, and he's absolutely right. Wardrobe looks stunning, from set design and costumes, to, particularly, the faithful visualization of C.S. Lewis' beloved creatures.
Wardrobe excels as a visually inventive realization of Lewis' story. By necessity, the film fills in gaps both in the story and in description, in ways sure to delight children new to the story and those already entranced by its magic. (A note to parents: Although nowhere near as gruesome as the creatures that populate the Lord of the Rings movies, the witch's dark minions are rendered with enough vivid detail to disturb younger audience members.)
In her solitary discovery of Narnia, Georgie Henley as Lucy pulls off a wholly believable sense of wide-eyed wonder as the wardrobe's fur coats give way to fir trees and the crunch of snow, suggesting that the little girl is no longer in a dusty old mansion.
She is almost immediately met by the faun Tumnus (Scottish actor James McAvoy), who is striking both in character and in faunlikeness, his human torso and lower body of a goat melded with comfortably awkward believability.
These key early moments in the film will strike a chord with the book's many fans, as they see each memorable setting-the lamppost in the woods and Mr. Tumnus' cozy cave home. With a few exceptions, Wardrobe's plot is on target, avoiding the temptation to modernize Lewis' settings or too greatly inflate the action.
A notable exception is an extended chase scene on the way to the Stone Table that suffers both from superfluity and less-than-believable special effects. On the other hand, who wasn't secretly disappointed that Lewis devoted so little description to the final battle, in which Peter and Edmund lead a valiant but losing effort against the White Witch (a chilling Tilda Swinton) before Aslan arrives and saves the day? The film brings that scene rousingly to life.
Which brings us to Aslan. Fans of the great lion, King of the Beasts and, to Lewis, King of Kings, will be happy to learn that the lion is strikingly animated and voiced (by Liam Neeson) and ultimately is presented in the film clearly as a Christ figure. However, attentive Narnia readers will notice scriptings that weaken him in relationship to the White Witch, shifting the focus from Aslan's redemptive power to more generic themes of family, leadership, and compassion. Only when we come to several late scenes is the spiritual symbolism of Aslan's sacrifice at the Stone Table made surprisingly (see "The chronicles of making Narnia") explicit.
In an oft-quoted letter to a fifth-grade class in Maryland, Lewis wrote, "You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books 'represents' something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim's Progress but . . . I did not say to myself, 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia': I said, 'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.'"
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is served wonderfully by Lewis' singularly devout imagining. Mr. Adamson's film, although in many ways wonderfully conceived and realized, suffers from competing interests, not all of which were conceived by Lewis' orthodox imagination. Yet through it all, Aslan's fearsome roar is still powerful enough to be heard over the din.