IF YOU GREW UP on C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, you won't be disappointed in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in a projected series. It's visually rich and imaginative, and emotionally stirring. Director Andrew Adamson and his co-writers (Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) have hewn closely to Lewis's 1950 children's novel, yet the movie never feels like a slavish adaptation, as some of the Harry Potter movies do.
But then The Lion has a less complicated plot. Four London school-children, sent to a Victorian mansion in the countryside during the Blitz, walk into a wardrobe in one of its many rooms and discover that the back opens into an enchanted world called Narnia, where animals converse and the wicked White Witch holds sway. The appearance of the four Pevensie kids, "sons of Adam and daughters of Eve" who are fated to sit on the Narnian throne, signals the end of the witch's wintry, tyrannical reign. (Spring hasn't been seen in a century.) And the great lion Aslan, the Witch's opposite number, has returned to help the forces of good wrest away her control.
The book is the most beloved of modern Christian allegories; it climaxes with Aslan's crucifixion (he barters his own life for that of one of the children--a Judas whose need of redemption stands for humankind's) and his resurrection. Far from attempting to minimize the Christian iconography, the filmmakers dive into it, embracing the ideas and framing the images that make the story so elementally powerful.
Aslan's death is staged magnificently, and the cruelty of the gloating ice queen (Tilda Swinton, putting her chilly presence to good use for once) is deeply upsetting. When she and her minions abandon the lion's bound body to the stone table on which he sacrificed himself, the Pevensie girls, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), weep over him like a latter-day Mary and Martha. The boys, Peter (William Moseley), the eldest, and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), whose poor judgment allied him at first with the witch, do battle against the witch's armies. The boys' junior-size medieval armor calls to mind the Crusades.
Adamson's choice to spend some time establishing the World War II setting is smart for two reasons. Readers of the book accept Edmund's appalling conduct (he betrays his siblings to the White Witch for the promise of a limitless supply of Turkish Delight) as a requisite of the plot, and because he's a little boy one doesn't linger on it--especially since Aslan forgives him and Edmund proves his worth in the battle. …