The Passion of the Lion 

C.S. Lewis' candy-coated Bible story is troubling but irresistible.

First, conservative attack-gerbil Bill O'Reilly announces the existence of a secret, liberal-led war against Christmas, then Walt Disney and Walden Media release The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, an epic fantasy about a kid-friendly battle to save Christmas, spread freedom, and rid the world of evil minotaurs.

Coincidence? Probably not. Only a dozen days after President Bush's inauguration, billionaire Philip Anschutz, a conservative sugar daddy and Walden Media's owner, was granted permission to drill some extremely controversial oil wells in Montana. If the politically sensitive and the outright paranoid smell propaganda lurking between the hawkish frames of C.S. Lewis' anthropomorphic account of Christ's death and resurrection, they may be on to something. No worries though. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes terrible propaganda for the same reasons it fails as Christian apologia: The fantasy is too rich. In print and on the screen, the author's extended metaphors vanish into a vividly realized world of centaurs and sorcery like salt goes into a boiled potato.

Lewis wanted his candy-coated Bible story to prepare children to understand Christ's passion. Having learned a thing or two from The Passion of the Christ, Disney trained the all-seeing eye of its marketing department on religious institutions, hoping to launch a Harry Potter-sized franchise for people who think Harry Potter's the devil. There's even a Disney-sponsored contest for American ministers who work Narnia into their December sermons. But CGI mermaids aside, Lewis' story is subtler and far less parochial than Mel Gibson's divine grindhouse flick. It's hung with riddles and, like any proper myth, it invites wonder and interpretation.

Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek and Shrek 2) opens his film in the clouds as Nazi bombers descend from heaven dropping deadly cargo on England's urban centers. To escape the disaster, the Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, bid their mother a teary goodbye and leave for the country where they stumble through an enchanted closet and land smack-dab in the middle of a much cuter, more kid-friendly war. Still, there's no cheery family reunion on the Nazi's side of this wardrobe. There's no telegram from Dad saying, "Everything's going to be okay." We're returned to the real world, but never to the real war, and Lewis' gruesome fantasia ends in uncertainty with a sweet-faced girl and a creepy old man staring dumbly at a lump of furniture, wondering if they'll ever escape this wretched earth again.

Adamson's Narnia may look and feel too much like Peter Jackson's Middle-earth, but The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is nobody's knockoff. From the bleak gray bombscapes of England to the severity of occupied Narnia, the film plays out like some dystopian prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Without pandering, it takes us to a juvenile world of talking animals where an illegitimate monarch -- the White Witch -- uses her magic to make it always winter but never Christmas. The trees spy in her service, and wolves neutralize anyone caught comforting humans or aiding the followers of Aslan, a Christ-like lion.

With her cadaverous skin, Tilda Swinton wears the witch's crown with barbaric authority. Like a lark, she lulls Edmund (the story's diminutive Judas figure) into betraying his family for a pile of sweets. Like a lash, her powerful characterization dominates everyone she encounters, including Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) who looks a bit too much like a stuffed lion to really intimidate.

It's difficult enough to work Santa Claus (James Cosmo) into a serious story, and that task is made doubly hard when the gifts he brings are the sharp-edged tools of war, which the hawkish old elf presents to the Pevensie children like a gruff old coach preparing his team for victory. Prior to Father Christmas' visit, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) only want to rescue Edmund (Skandar Keynes) from the witch and return to England, but their commitment to the Narnian rebellion is sealed with five gifts, representing battle, communication, and healing.

In an increasingly shamefaced America, where so many people are souring on a war they supported but never understood, it's important to understand that Lewis' stories were written as a salve for the children of WWII. The warriors of the Greatest Generation exchanged combat victories over the Axis for a new war as cold as the White Witch's kingdom, and, in its original context, Santa's disquieting challenge conjured an entirely different set of images.

Even in the spectacular (and surprisingly bloodless) battle scenes, Adamson takes his time, never giving in to the trend of pacing all action/adventure stories like a video game. His thoughtful treatment of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's most hamfisted elements should make the prospect of subsequent Narnia films exciting. But after the White Witch is vanquished, Narnia's villains begin to bear an uncanny resemblance to Muslims, and for all of his Unitarian urges, Lewis' prose reveals a bit of racism. If The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe smacks of propaganda, the subsequent A Horse and His Boy reeks with cultural insensitivity, and it's difficult to imagine that all seven books will make it to the screen intact.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

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