This review was originally published at Christianity Today in December 2005.

And ten years later, it pains me to look back and see just how much promise there seemed to be in this adaptation. It was going to happen: We were going to watch the Narnia series unfold on the big screen with a cast of accomplished actors, a crew of talented artists and craftsman, and all the power of Disney to make it work!

Alas, that didn’t happen.

The first film gave us some of the iconic moments that those who love C.S. Lewis’s children’s stories had longed to see. But it had problems — including a desire to mimic the epic battle scenes of Peter Jackson’s overblown Tolkien adaptations.

Then came Prince Caspian, which had more serious problems, and finally Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which, while arguably the most entertaining of the films, was also the one that strayed farthest from the source material.

Occasionally, we hear reports that the next episode is being prepared, but at this point I suspect that there are plenty of Lewis’s fans who would be happier if Disney just left well enough alone.

Anyway, here’s one from the archives…

My Original Christianity Today Review

At last, the Pevensies have reached the silver screen. What a joy to see Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy — the four siblings of C. S. Lewis’s beloved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe — brought to life so vividly. After all of the rumors, the fretting about literary fidelity, and the angst about religious agendas, we can praise director Andrew Adamson and his fine young actors for developing these “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” into three-dimensional, engaging characters.

There they stand, at a train stop in the middle of nowhere, luggage in hand, fidgety and nervous. Their mother has sent them away from bomb-blasted London due to the Nazi threat, and they’re on their way to a safer place in the country. Wasn’t someone from the mansion of Professor Kirke supposed to meet them here and take them away to their new wartime refuge?

But they’re no more nervous than Lewis’s countless fans who worried about a faithful adaptation. Could Adamson pull it off? Would the film measure up to the hype and expectations? Are these Pevensies like the children of the book? And above all—did they get Aslan right?

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Peter (William Moseley) at the London train station

Back at the train stop, watching the road for any sign of help, young Edmund frowns, checks his I.D. tag, and says, “Perhaps we’ve been incorrectly labeled.”

Indeed. Many mainstream journalists have treated the movie as a sort of pending terrorist attack, but this movie cannot be dismissed, like so many preachy “Christian films,” as religious propaganda. And the anxious faithful can relax, as Adamson has done no serious injury to the narrative’s basic outline of sacrifice and redemption. “The lion’s share” of Lewis’s meaningful story remains intact.

Adamson, who also directed the Shrek films, was never much interested in the religious implications of Lewis’s narrative. He, like Lewis, was caught up in the wild imagination of a timeless fairy tale, which happens to be full of references to the pagan mythology that Lewis found so rich with reflections of the truth. The film, which was made under the watchful eye of Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham, is best enjoyed as a symphonic and delightful fantasy. It’s a kaleidoscopic vision of fanciful and colorful creatures, fantastic landscapes, and laugh-out-loud surprises.

Into the Wardrobe

The film literally opens with a bang, as Adamson smartly starts by depicting the German air raids on London. In that chaos, Adamson establishes the Pevensies’ four distinct personalities and temperaments in quick, efficient strokes, even before the train carries them out of London.

Lucy's wide-eyed wonder is a joy to behold

Once inside the mansion of the mysterious Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, perfectly cast), Adamson unfortunately skips their exhilarating exploration. He’s too eager for the hide-and-seek game that sends Lucy burrowing into the coat-stuffed gateway to Narnia’s wonders.

What happens next is one of the most enchanting sequences in the history of fantasy filmmaking. For a few minutes, everything is exactly as it should be. Mothballs. Fur coats. Snow crunching underfoot. Prickly needles of evergreen. This chapter is lifted beautifully from Lewis’s description, ushering us into his wonderland with exquisite grace.

Here, young Georgie Henley, playing the role of Lucy, reveals that she’s the film’s greatest treasure. If eyes are windows to the soul, Henley’s soul is super-sized. Without her vibrant personality and mischievous grin, Narnia would lose its lifeblood. She makes Lucy’s awe and delight contagious. (Her glee is quite real: In a stroke of genius, Adamson arranged for Henley to be carried onto the dazzling wintry set blindfolded, and the cameras caught her actual response to its beauty.)

Lucy, still wide-eyed with wonder, then meets Mr. Tumnus the faun, played by James McAvoy. In an endearing turn, McAvoy gives the faun delicate humor and a haunted heart, and his interaction with Lucy is both charming and portentous.

Adamson gives each child a clear and separate journey. Lucy will lead them, as fairy-tale children so often do, into a world of discovery, and her faith will be richly blessed. Susan (Anna Popplewell) will learn that logic and “too much thinking” can prevent her from apprehending miracles. Peter (William Moseley) is insecure and easily exasperated, whereas in the book he was a natural leader; like Peter Jackson’s melancholic Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he must rise to seize a sword and lead the charge against evil.

Above all, rebellious Edmund (Skandar Keynes) benefits from the revisions. The boy’s obstinacy now seems to spring from a reasonable source—he’s distraught over his father’s wartime absence. His attempts to discredit Lucy’s discovery of Narnia are given new motivation and vitality, and his betrayal of his siblings stings, swells, and aches for most of the film.

Susan (Anna Popplewell), Peter and Lucy try to hold off some nasty wolves

Turkish Delight, of course, baits Edmund to his fall, served up by the magisterial tempter of this frozen wonderland, the White Witch. Tilda Swinton plays the Witch with admirable restraint and intelligence. In spite of her outrageous costumes and an annoying dwarf attendant who desperately needs a throat lozenge, she’s an effective seductress—it’s believable that a naïve troublemaker would accept her cold comfort. Like Palpatine delivering sugar-coated lies to Anakin Skywalker, the Witch fools him with what he can’t get elsewhere: flattery and promises of power.

A Mere Amusement Park?

It’s odd, however, the way that Edmund gets from place to place. In the novel, he makes a torturous journey to reach the Witch’s castle. But here, Narnia’s landmarks feel about as far apart as Disneyland’s amusement park rides. The castle’s just a couple of city blocks from the beaver dam, which is a quick stroll from the lamppost, which is just around the corner from the hills where Aslan’s entourage awaits.

But there are deeper problems here. Insofar as the movie adheres to Lewis’s text, it’s a knockout. But as Adamson wedges in original action sequences, he willingly sacrifices far too much of Lewis’s most essential dialogue. Peter Jackson had no choice but to severely abbreviate The Lord of the Rings in order to contain it in feature-length chapters, but Adamson’s challenge was quite the opposite. Lewis’s story is short, simple and concentrated—every episode, every line counts.

For no good reason, conventional adventure spectacle replaces the joys of long, memorable sequences like the melting of the witch’s dominion, a woodland Christmas party, and the thawing of prisoners. Adamson’s more excited about inventing a frantic fight with wolves on a frozen river, and 20 minutes of elaborate, Jackson-esque, CGI warfare, as if to ensure there’s enough material for a video game tie-in. Lewis, preferring beauty to violence, only gave the war a page or two.

Tilda Swinton is marvelous as the White Witch

Those who don’t know the book won’t find anything amiss. Those who do will realize that Adamson’s excisions do more than just quicken the pace—they change the nature of important characters.

The beavers, vividly voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French, are a cartoonish but likeable pair. But they’re robbed of significant lines that build our apprehension of meeting Aslan and help us understand his kingship. The book’s devotees will be dismayed to find that Mr. Beaver is denied his famous speech about Aslan’s power and authority: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (Tumnus and Lucy echo this sentiment later, but it doesn’t serve the same purpose.)

Meanwhile, our dear, benevolent Professor has been reduced almost to a bit role, with many of his key lines of dialogues seriously abbreviated or outright dropped. It staggers the imagination as to why he’s been minimized to just a couple of grandfatherly interjections. An expanded “special edition” is in order.

A Diminished Aslan

As for the character we’ve all longed to see — Aslan — let’s face it: He’s not the Aslan who gave that novel its bold and beating heart. He’s given a voice of nobility and gentleness by Hollywood’s favorite warrior-mentor, Liam Neeson. Thanks to the animators, he’s a beautiful sight, if not quite as convincing as the CGI characters in Jackson’s Middle-Earth. But Adamson, working with Emmy-winning co-writers Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, has severely altered Aslan’s presence and power in the script.

While other characters’ roles have been expanded, the lion’s appearances are painfully brief. He doesn’t have the time onscreen to earn our affection and awe the way we might have hoped. And scene by scene, the writers consistently skirt the issue of Aslan’s authority, eliminating most references to his history, power, and influence. Aslan’s father, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, is never mentioned. Instead, the lion waxes philosophical like Obi-Wan Kenobi, mentioning the Deep Magic that “governs” his “destiny.” Huh?

Aslan has a private word with Edmund (Skandar Keynes) after rescuing him from the Witch

Aslan has a private word with Edmund (Skandar Keynes) after rescuing him from the Witch

Just as Aslan’s majesty has been diminished, the strength of the Witch has been upgraded. She bears little resemblance to the sorceress who made Mr. Beaver declare, “If she can stand on her two feet and look [Aslan] him in the face it’ll be the most she can do and more than I expect.” In the novel, Jadis went into terrified hysterics at the mere mention of Aslan’s name—here she barely flinches. When they face off, she’s fearless. Did Adamson make the White Witch a more threatening villain to increase suspense? That’s a practical idea. But Lewis would have objected. This Aslan is essentially muzzled and bound long before the Stone Table scene.

Still a Success

It is a shame to have lost any of Wardrobe‘s wonderful resonance. But in spite of some grave errors in judgment, Adamson’s film is still an admirable success. Let’s keep things in perspective: It was once rumored that other filmmakers were moving the story from London to present-day L.A. after an earthquake, casting Janet Jackson as Narnia’s Witch, and packing Narnia’s streets with wisecracking critters à la Madagascar. Adamson and company should be commended for respecting Lewis’s imagination as much as they did.

Lewis described a story’s sequence of events as “a net whereby to catch something else.” While Aslan’s intimidating power and glory has escaped them, the filmmakers have “caught” the essence of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And they’ve blessed the holiday season with a first-class family film that will stand tall after Lewis’s detractors have spent their feeble arrows.

With its story of a savior who suffered the consequences for others’ sins, and whose power proved greater even than death, this meaningful myth reflects rays of hope into a culture paralyzed by the chill of unbelief, where many really would prefer a winter without a Christmas. Those who respond to the movie’s roar by running to Lewis’s book will find Deeper Magic in its pages. Meeting them there, Lewis himself will lead them “further up, further in.”