C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe always seemed like The Lord of the Rings for Sunday Schoolers, yet for the most part, Disney’s lavish cinematic adaptation of the novel focuses less on its ever-present and distracting bibilical allegory (which caused even Lewis’s pal J.R.R. Tolkien some indigestion) and more on its magic-and-monsters fantasy. It’s a futile tactic, though, as Andrew Adamson’s film, while respectable, can’t escape the lengthy shadow of Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning Rings trilogy, proving incapable of approximating a suitably epic scale or an emotional or thematic resonance to sustain its out-of-this-world adventure from start to finish. And in the wake of last month’s fourth Harry Potter installment, the sight of cyclopes, minotaurs, centaurs, ogres, dwarfs, fauns, and all types of talking forest animals—as well as the image of wide-eyed kids trying to come to terms with the extraordinary creatures before them—merely elicits a disinterested ho-hum that’s only moderately palliated by Tilda Swinton’s malevolently icy performance as the White Witch, Narnia’s would-be conqueror. Its CGI serviceable, Adamson’s direction competent, and its young lead actors solid and largely affectation-free, Narnia’s tale of four kids during WWII who stumble upon a wardrobe which allows them access to a wintry Never Never Land nonetheless persistently feels wearisomely familiar and slight.
Despite Adamson and his three fellow screenwriters’ thorough attempts to whitewash the story’s more religious features, the film still never manages to fully escape its roots as a spiritual parable. And the devout (who’ve been setting up church-sponsored screenings around the country for the past month) will find significant Christian undercurrents to latch onto, primarily because Lewis’s narrative was a model of unsubtle New Testament symbolism. When responsible Susan Pevensie (Anna Popplewell) tells younger sister Lucy (Georgie Henley) that a wardrobe can’t operate as an inter-dimensional portal because “logically, it’s impossible,” the unspoken implication—you gotta have faith—hangs heavily in the air. Once in Narnia, the kids quickly find themselves at the center of an impending war between the Satanic White Witch and Christ-like Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), a virtuous lion who ultimately dies for the sins of Judas-ish Pevensie brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes)—as well as for the good of Narnia—only to be reborn in time to conquer the forces of evil. To say that it’s all more than a bit simplistic and heavy-handed would be a severe understatement. But there’s no denying the unintentional hilarity of Aslan’s overwrought death scene, in which he’s bound, shaved, mocked by a screaming mob, and killed in some sort of surreal anthropomorphic PG version of The Passion of the Christ.