Alice, down the rabbit hole, tumbled into a Wonderland of vanity and vice — the real world etched in satirical acid — and her early-20th-century American counterpart, Dorothy, found Oz, with its surreal yokels and charlatans, to be just as crackpot a place. But when C.S. Lewis wrote his own variation on rabbit hole metaphysics, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which he dispatched four very proper British children into the haunted and mystical winterland of Narnia, he wasn’t fooling around, or even cracking a smile. You can read the seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia as a Christian allegory or as an ornate book of wonder (or both), but either way it’s marked by the devout, almost pristine earnestness of Lewis’ sincerity and gravitas. Narnia, a land of fauns, talking beavers, a dastardly White Witch, and a solemn savior of a lion, may sound like the stuff of filigreed fairy tales, but it’s really a place of holy war, where the imagination darkens the more it expands.
In the lavish, spirited, at times naggingly literal-minded movie version of the hugely popular first Narnia tale, you’re often aware that you’re watching child actors romp through a land of concocted creatures and special effects. The snow is too studio-set frosty, and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French as an engaging pair of fussbudgets, come a little too close to the goofy polar bears in Coke commercials; you can see the digital seams. The centaurs, satyrs, and assorted other magic folk of the wood often look as if they’d just stepped out of a makeup trailer. Director Andrew Adamson, in his live-action debut (after Shrek and Shrek 2), stages The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with a wide-eyed prosaic eagerness that reminds me a little of the Hollywood fantasy films of the late ’60s. Even when Adamson brings off a lovely touch, such as the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) tempting young Edmund (Skandar Keynes) by creating ice sculptures that turn into fruit-filled Turkish Delight, we don’t quite feel how the devilish dessert has corrupted the boy’s heart.
Yet the movie, for all its half-baked visual marvels, remains remarkably faithful to Lewis’ story, and the innocence of his passion begins to shine through. It’s there, most spectacularly, in Aslan, the lion-king messiah. For once, a computerized beast looks like he’s talking, and he’s voiced, by Liam Neeson, in velvet seductive tones of lordly compassion. Swinton, as the White Witch, makes a worthy enemy, rearing up during the climactic battle like a rock star of cold self-love. The war itself, with its digital tumult, will look familiar to anyone who saw the Lord of the Rings films, but if Peter Jackson did it better, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by summoning C.S. Lewis’ spirit, creates a different kind of spectacle — a starry-eyed crusade.