The Chronicles of Narnia

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The plot in a nutshell
Based on the first book (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) in the acclaimed series The Chronicles of Narnia, the film tells the tale of four children who find the entrance to a magical land called Narnia through the back of an old wardrobe. But this land is ruled by an evil witch, and it is only with the help of Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy that the good people (uh, animals actually) can defeat the evil queen.

Relatively Spoiler Free Thoughts
Many people who will go to this film are expecting the Lord of the Rings, and that's not a surprise. C.S. Lewis was not only a contemporary of Tolkien, but a friend as well. Together, they are arguably the founders of modern fantasy, and Lewis includes many beasts from ancient mythology in his world. And there is a great battle between good and evil, set in magical land.

But Lewis' books were really intended for a younger audience, as is this film. This is a Disney PG movie, and that means there's no blood, no lopping off of heads, no severing of limbs with spewing fountains of gore. But this movie manages to pack more emotional impact into its bloodless scenes of pain and death than most R rated films even hope for.

The film starts in war torn London, as the Nazi's bomb the city and endanger the lives of everyone. Peter is the oldest child of four (the man of the family, with his father off fighting the war), with Susan (the scientific, logical one of the family) next in age, then Edmund (the rebellious and difficult child) and finally Lucy (the cute and precocious). During the war, programs were set up in which families living away from the city would take in the children of parents living in dangerous areas. So it is with great reluctance that their mother sends the four off to live in a huge old mansion with Professor Kirke.

The Professor and his housekeeper, Mrs. Macready, aren't portrayed as evil, or mean, or even cruel. In fact, the professor is quite wise, and provides some excellent advice to the children along the way. But even in the best of cases, this is a painful and difficult time. Peter must be the one to take care of his siblings, and Edmund resents him for trying to be the 'adult'. Edmund and Peter are not friends, as is often the case for brothers in the pre-teen and teen years, and the bad situation only increases the strain on the bond between the four children.

The film keeps much of the early parts of the book to a minimum, getting us to the action of Narnia fairly quickly. Just as it was a smart move by Peter Jackson to drop Tom Bombadil from the early part of the FOTR, so too is it a smart move here.

There are edits and minor changes through out to the core story, but none of them harm the telling in any way. Once Lucy and her siblings find their way to Narnia, we meet the varied and unique inhabitants quickly, and they are pulled into the war in this new land, much like the war in their own world, much against their plans.

This film is truly beautiful to witness. Narnia is done in grand style, filmed in New Zealand (another similarity to LOTR) with all the beauty of the land on it's side. Of course, amazing matte paintings help out where the land of West Auckland could not.

The CGI work here is amazing. If you took an alien from another planet who had no prior knowledge of a lion or beaver or wolf, and sat him (or her I suppose) down to watch this movie, they'd naturally assume that lions and wolves and beavers can talk. The CGI is that good, and it's reached a level where the slightest lip twitch, eyebrow raise, or nostril flare can be used to impart true emotions on the most realistic of animal faces.

That's critical to this film, since characters like Aslan or the Beavers are central to the story. The CGI also gives us some wonderful mythological beasts, such as Minotaurs, Centaurs and Fawns. The CGI in this film worked so well that it never distracted, but only enhanced the movie.

The acting is solid across the board as well, and the kid's never had any of those awkward kid moments, where it's clear they're reading lines. It's highly unlikely you'll recognize any of them, since like the kids in Harry Potter, they were all unknowns, or close to it. However, while I enjoy the work by the kids in Harry Potter, these four are much better actors.

But the key character in this film is the White Witch, played by Tilda Swinton. She is a wonderful actress, with major roles in films like Broken Flowers, Thumbsucker and Adaptation in recent years, but my readers will most likely remember her as Gabriel in the film Constantine. She is both beautiful and dangerous, and her performance here was critical to this film. It's always the villains that get the best lines, and she absolutely oozes with both power and danger throughout her entire performance.

Another similarity with the LOTR films is in the director, Andrew Adamson. His only work prior to this is the Shrek films, which, while tremendously popular, doesn't necessarily mean he can handle a big budget fantasy film like Narnia. And yet the studio took a chance with him, and it's going to pay off handsomely. There's no doubt this movie will become a children's classic, and will pave the way for Adamson to do absolutely any project he wants. Let's hope he's not a huge fan of Mighty Joe Young.

Now, let's talk Christianity for a second. Yes, Lewis was a big time Christian. And yes, there is plenty of Christian symbolism in this film if you look for it. If you don't, you're not even going to make the connection, not because it isn't obvious enough, but because this type of symbolism is in many, many films, from LOTR to Spider-man. The symbolism in Christ's story goes back to older myths and legends as well, and is a story that speaks to us on a very primitive level. At it's core, this movie is about courage, love, forgiveness, and the sorry and pain that comes from greed and selfishness. These are concepts that have been played out through many, many great works, so to see them here is no surprise. But at no time was this in any way Christian propaganda, and you have no reason to fear waking up the next day after seeing it with a craving for little wafers with some wine to wash them down.

While there's no blood, and no mutilation, I was actually surprised by the PG rating. There are scenes in this film that are tremendously powerful, and the large scale battle will certainly make an impression on a child of 7 or 8. That's not a bad thing though, and this film reminded me of much older Disney films, when they were able to do children's stories without the fear of someone complaining about too much violence. Disney gets a bad rap, but when Disney does a film right, it can really do it right - and this is Disney at its best.

Rating - Hit the Theater.
Unless you have a dedicated home theater with 7.1 sound and a 110" screen, I'd suggest seeing this at the theater. It's definitely a big screen even, and the battles and grand scenery will look far better blown up in all their glory.

And while this film shares many similarities with LOTR, it isn't that film. Don't set your expectations that way, and you'll be far better off. They have purchased the rights to do all seven books in the Narnia series, and I for one certainly hope we get to see every one of them on the big screen.

Spoiler Laden Thoughts
I'm not going to spoil a thing - go see it for yourself!

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