Though “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” elegantly preserves the Christian themes of C.S. Lewis' famed fantasy novel, it's unlikely to inspire the religious fan devotion of “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” or even “The Passion of the Christ.”
The movie is perfectly agreeable, adorable even, but hardly revelatory.
And to think: Back when we read the book as children, Turkish Delight was only Turkish Delight. Once again, the four Pevensie siblings — duty-bound teen Peter (William Moseley), sensible, circumspect Susan (Anna Popplewell), willful second-son Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and button-nosed little angel Lucy (Georgie Henley) — are whisked out of London during the Nazi air raids of World War II. Reluctantly, the children go to live in the country mansion of one Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), an avuncular if rarely seen man who encourages their flights of imagination.
Playing in the house one day, Lucy steps into the titular piece of furniture and discovers a magic portal that leads to a fantastic, frost-covered sylvan kingdom called Narnia. The kingdom is ruled by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton from “The Deep End”), a pale, Bowie-esque tyrant in blond dreadlocks who tends an ever-growing stone menagerie of dissidents and foes. Soon, Lucy's siblings follow her to Narnia, where they escape capture with the help of a jabbery beaver couple (Ray Winstone and Dawn French) and align themselves with Aslan, a messianic, tawny-maned lion who believes the Pevensies are prophesied to deliver the world from darkness. (Ubiquitous Irishman Liam Neeson gives Aslan his deep, regal rumble, and digital animators do the rest, magnificently.)
After the snuff-tastic success of “The Passion of the Christ,” you can bet that writer-director Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”) and his scripting partners were under strict orders not to soft-pedal the religious allusions, and they don't. Edmund's slide into temptation is boilerplate Bible, but no less harrowing because of it. (No cursed apple this time, just the aforementioned pastry.) Later, Lucy and Susan join Aslan for a stroll through a Gethsemanelike clearing before the lion surrenders himself to the witch and her minions to atone for Edmund's betrayal. What follows is a less grotesque but still poignant version of what happened to Jim Caviezel in “Passion.”
Still, there's a pat, down-market feel to “Narnia” that prevents it from achieving greatness. Adamson's grasp of visual cliché — so perfectly suited for the fairy-tale spoofing of “Shrek” — becomes a liability here, especially during the “Rings”-like final clash between good and evil. (Not that the sequence lacks exotic splendor — it's like someone took the occupants of two extraterrestrial zoos and unleashed them on each other.) The film was financed by Walden Media, the same outfit that made “Around the World in 80 Days” (2004), and has a touch of the same nerveless disease that ruined that literary adaptation.
And would it have killed the filmmakers to cast a few star names? Swinton — a commanding, intellectually intense performer — is good, but she seems stiff and dramatically constipated as the White Witch. The character might have fangs (figuratively speaking), but the actress doesn't sink them into anything.