[Screen It]

(2005) (William Moseley, Tilda Swinton) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A quartet of WWII era British kids finds themselves the unlikely prophetic saviors of a fantastical world ruled by an evil witch who's subjected the inhabitants to a century of nothing but winter.
It's WWII era England and the Pevensie kids -- teenagers Peter (WILLIAM MOSELEY) and Susan (ANNA POPPLEWELL) and their younger siblings Edmund (SKANDAR KEYNES) and Lucy (GEORGIE HENLEY) -- not only have to deal with their father being off in the war, but also constant bombing raids by the Nazis. When the latest is too close for comfort, their mother puts them on a train where they head off into the countryside to stay at an enormous manner owned by Professor Kirke (JIM BROADBENT).

With his steely housekeeper informing the kids not to disturb him, they try to find ways to amuse themselves, and the older kids eventually agree to play hide and seek with Lucy. During the game, Lucy discovers an otherwise empty room containing only a covered wardrobe. Deciding it would make a good hiding place, she scurries inside, only to discover that it's much bigger than it seems and eventually leads to a wintry world that she soon will learn is called Narnia.

There, she meets the Faun Mr. Tumnus (JAMES MCAVOY), but doesn't realize his seemingly kind ways are really a ploy to kidnap her for Jadis, the evil White Witch (TILDA SWINTON) who's ordered that any such humans be rounded up and delivered to her. Tumnus is conflicted by what's the proper thing to do and thus helps her escape back to her world.

Her siblings don't believe her story, even after Edmund follows her into Narnia and encounters Jadis, before returning to the manor. Yet, after accidentally breaking something, all four try to elude the housekeeper and end up hiding in the wardrobe. It's then that Peter and Susan realize Lucy was telling the truth. They also discover that Tumnus has now been deemed a traitor and the kids then find a new guide in the form of Mr. Beaver (voice of RAY WINSTONE).

He takes them back to his home where he and Mrs. Beaver (voice of DAWN FRENCH) inform them that the White Witch has subjected Narnia to a century of winter, but without Christmas. They also state that prophecy foresaw the two sons of Adam and the two daughters of Eve arriving in Narnia to free the inhabitants from the White Witch's rule.

The Pevensie kids don't believe they're the ones, yet with the aid of the Beavers and a slinky Fox (voice of RUPERT EVERETT), they're soon on their way to meet the mighty lion Aslan (voice of LIAM NEESON) who's gathering an army of mythological creatures to battle the White Witch and her forces.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although it's not always the healthiest thing that involves them, kids possess a powerful tool when it comes to dealing with adverse situations. And that's their imagination that allows them to escape into other worlds, so to speak, unlike adults who might fantasize about such escape, but no longer have the ability to do so, at least on a mental level.

All of which explains the opening sequence of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." While I knew this offering was the first installment of a seven-work series penned by C.S. Lewis back in the 1950s, and that it was a fantastical tale filled with plenty of imagination (both on the part of the author and reader), I had no idea it would start with a Nazi bombing raid on WWII era London.

In fact, as the bombs were dropping, my initial reaction was that perhaps they were showing the wrong film. But once the scale of the scene became more intimate -- focusing on the Pevensie family -- I quickly figured out what was going on and where the story was headed.

Like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Peter Pan," the opening moments are present to create the world from which the kids must escape. And thus like Dorothy into Oz and the Darling kids into Neverland, the kids here -- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy -- end up in an imaginative world filled with adventure, peril, mythology and Christian metaphors.

Those who fall into that religious denomination will likely be pleased with such symbolism, thematic material and messages, but for those who don't, it's not preachy in a heavy-handed way. And while few adults will likely miss the religious allusions, many kids will probably be too caught up in the action and adventure to really notice. What will likely strike moviegoers as rather obvious, however, are the similarities to "The Lord of The Rings" tales.

Both feature visionary worlds populated with extraordinary characters and creatures where an omnipresent evil has soured the lives of all there, and the unlikeliest of heroes find themselves in the fight of their lives as they turn out to be the inhabitants' only hope. Yes, that's somewhat simplified, and before anyone yells out charges of plagiarism, it should be noted that while Lewis' contemporary and friend J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" in 1937, the first "Narnia" installment beat the same of the "LOTR" works to the market by several years.

That said, "Narnia," at least as it appears and unfolds on the screen, feels like a watered-down, juvi-version of Peter Jackson's adaptations of Tolkien's works. That is, without the big name stars or multi-layered plot, but with the same sort of epic, large scale battle scenes and big-budget special effects.

Kids perhaps too young for the more intense "LOTR" films will probably love this, as it tells its tale from the kids' perspective, all while having the young human characters encounter an imaginative menagerie of funny, scary and interesting beings straight out of a mythology class. And for fans of those classic Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion animation movies, it's a fun visual reminder of such "monsters."

But it's the king of the jungle that will likely be most viewers' favorite, and that's not just because he's a metaphor for Christ. Instead, it's because a great deal of money and computing horsepower obviously went into making Aslan the lion look as photorealistic as possible.

A few years ago, much attention was paid to the lead character's many strands of realistic hair in "Final Fantasy." This effort puts that one to shame, as the special effects crew has created an astounding replica of the real thing. Voiced with the proper air, dignity and gravity by Liam Neeson, he's a terrific effect that looks so real most of the time that you may begin to worry a bit about the real kids' safety.

Alas, their characters aren't quite as interesting -- visually or just as people -- with each getting one specific characteristic and having to work that for most of the 135-some minute runtime. Young Georgie Henley is the best of the bunch -- mainly because she's just so darn cute -- but also due to her possessing the childhood inquisitiveness and wide-eyed wonder that fuels this sort of tale. Meanwhile, Ray Winstone and Dawn French provide the voices for the beaver characters who put on their best "old married couple" routine for some much needed comic relief.

On the opposite end of the scale is Tilda Swinton playing one of the most wicked witches this side of Oz. Seemingly tapping into her role of the dangerous archangel Gabriel from the Keanu Reeves flick "Constantine," Swinton is pure evil incarnate and could go down as one of the better villains in children's cinematic storytelling (although the fact that there's no caricature element to her performance might make her a little too real for some younger viewers).

Production values are pretty much top-notch, with gorgeous cinematography, good art direction and so on. While all of the special effects aren't as impressive as those involving the lion, they're fairly good, and the big, climatic battle scene at the end certainly had all of the production team's computers churning away to create all of the visual mayhem and action.

Unfortunately, following on the heels of the "LOTR" films (and a slew of others featuring massive, clashing battle sequences), such moments here are the film's least impressive and/or involving. Although kids who've been sucked up into the story might not feel that way, adults are likely to react in the usual "been there, seen that" fashion.

A decent introductory chapter that will play better to the younger ones as well as those adults who haven't completely lost their imaginative powers, the film is far from the best thing I've seen all year, but it has enough winning moments to earn a bit more than just a passable recommendation. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 29, 2005 / Posted December 9, 2005

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