If my instincts are right, this action- and emotion-filled adventure fantasy is going to do for young viewing audiences today what The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad did for me when I was 8. That film, filled with magic and strange creatures and trips to fantastic places, just knocked me out. I still watch it whenever it pops up on TV.
Narnia, of course, is miles ahead in sophistication, but it definitely has some of the old-fashioned charm of Sinbad. Wisely, some of the effects aren't quite state-of-the-art, while others, most notably the visual interaction between humans and a couple of talking beavers, are absolutely perfect. There's a noble lion and some vicious dogs with very humanlike features.
The film opens in the midst of a terrifying German bombing blitz somewhere in England during World War II. For the central family, Dad is off fighting, and Mom is about to send their four kids by train to safety out in the country. The huge estate they're to stay at is the home of an inquisitive and possibly friendly old gent (Jim Broadbent, who isn't given enough screen time), and among the many rules fired off at the kids by the stern housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne), the most important is "there shall be no disturbing of the professor."
But she needn't worry. Endless rain and accompanying boredom lead the siblings to a game of hide and seek, which leads the youngest girl -- the almost impossibly cute Lucy -- to a room that holds only a large, covered-up, long-forgotten wardrobe, within which she hides, among the coats upon coats. And behind all those coats she finds, to her and our astonishment, some snow, a forest, another world.
This is Narnia, a place doomed to eternal winter, until...
But that won't be given away here. In short order, trusting little Lucy meets a local -- he calls himself a faun -- learns of the treachery of someone called the White Witch, and returns through the wardrobe, all aflutter, to tell her family what happened. But their reaction is, "We don't all have your imagination."
Inquisitive little kid-related events follow, as does a poorly hit cricket ball (right through one of the professor's windows) and all four kids -- Lucy, her downtrodden slightly older brother Edmund, and their comparatively bland elder brother and sister, Peter and Susan -- end up going through that wardrobe into the land of snow. And this wildly imaginative tale is then only just beginning.
There are people and creatures to meet, some of them noble, some of them wicked. In a solid piece of acting, Tilda Swinton portrays the Queen of Narnia, er, the White Witch. When she first meets Edmund, she's quite friendly toward him, but barely able to restrain her evil intentions. Shortly afterward, when she believes she can get her awful hands on all of the kids -- they, according to a prophecy, are a threat to her -- she abandons any friendly pretense, and becomes completely monstrous.
In turning this into a story of heroism and sacrifice, the film works on different levels for both adults and kids. This isn't anything like the Harry Potter films (which are more realistic and serious), nor does it resemble the Lord of the Rings films (which really are geared for adults). This is pure fantasy, with -- only if you look for them -- some hints of the Christian elements that were much more apparent in the C.S. Lewis books.
The lessons to be learned involve looking out for others as well as for yourself and, quite simply, that war is bad. When the kids find out that they are going to be at the center of oncoming trouble between the witch and the former lion king, Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), they don't want anything to do with it. They explain that they're already hiding from a war, which is how they got to the country and the wardrobe and Narnia in the first place. But when they must fight, well, they do.
Peter leads the good guys. The witch is even more of a warrior leading the bad guys. There are some very scary scenes in the film, and an impressive battle that erupts into chaos. But there's also plenty of magic, along with another message, one of the special bond between brothers and sisters. The bittersweet ending, and everything that comes before it, could easily lead to a successful film franchise. After all, Lewis wrote seven Narnia books.
The Chronicles of Narnia; Rated: PG; Directed by Andrew Adamson; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jim Broadbent and (the voice of) Liam Neeson