'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' a faithful delight

After "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was safely tucked in the cinematic vault, "The Chronicles of Narnia" probably stood as the most beloved children's series yet to be adapted for the big screen.

As with J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, the idea of staging a live-action version of C.S. Lewis' work seemed utterly unfeasible prior to the advent of digital effects.

Talking lions, beavers and wolves; centaurs; satyrs: These Narnians could not be faked by puppets or zippered costumes.

Thankfully, cutting-edge technology has made it possible to visualize a story that is, at its core, a very simple allegory.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is nothing more than good guys vs. bad guys. The religious camp embraces the tale because of its Christ-like themes and exploration of faith; kids love it because it's got magic, monsters and talking critters.

Set during the London blitz of World War II, the four Pevensie children are shipped off to the countryside as evacuees when Luftwaffe bombs begin dropping too near their house.

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Walt Disney Pictures Photo

Tilda Swinton, left, and Skandar Keynes star in the adaptation of C.S. Lewis' classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Taken in by an enigmatic professor (Jim Broadbent) and his stern housekeeper (Elizabeth Hawthorne), the kids pass the time playing cricket, word games ... and hide and seek.

One day while hiding, youngest Lucy (Georgie Henley) discovers that in the back of a dusty, furs-filled wardrobe lies a portal to a medieval fantasy land called Narnia.

Soon she has recruited her disbelieving siblings - oldest Peter (William Moseley), spirited Susan (Anna Popplewell) and mopey Edmund (Skandar Keynes) to the fanciful kingdom where "it's always winter, never Christmas."

They discover a civil war shared by the animals and humanoids of the realm. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) has usurped the throne, keeping the insurgents at bay through her secret police (i.e., wolves) and her penchant for turning enemies into ice statues.

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

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The adaptation of C.S. Lewis' beloved children's classic is often a magical delight, especially during smaller moments that test the mettle and morality of its young sibling heroes. The film loses some of its spell during a third act that relies too much on digital effects when visualizing a "Lord of the Rings"-style battle between good and evil.

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The Pevensies are stunned to learn that they are part of a prophecy that foresees "two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve defeat the White Witch and return peace to Narnia."

This news comes much to the chagrin of Edmund, who already has struck a backhanded bargain with the White Witch, unaware of her true malevolent nature.

There are moments in director Andrew Adamson's ("Shrek 2") loyal adaptation where "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" flirts with pure magic. Lucy's introduction to Narnia has that dreamlike quality of Dorothy's entry to Oz, as does Peter's initial meeting with the White Witch, played by Scottish thespian Swinton. The actress has made a career out of rendering otherworldly characters ("Constantine," "Orlando") as believable individuals. With her porcelain skin and cold black eyes, she furnishes a tactile menace to this fairy tale setting.

Yet by the time the anthropomorphic lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) shows up, the film loses some of its spell.

In the wake of "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and other modern blockbusters, it's hard to be bowled over by the sight of minotaurs fighting centaurs on a vast battlefield. Few movies anytime soon are going to have the budget or directorial vision to stage a finale that trumps the siege of Minas Tirith.

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Walt Disney Pictures Photo

Skandar Keynes, top left, Georgie Henley, Anna Popplewell and William Moseley portray siblings who discover a magical world in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Even so, there's a certain "Ring" to the picture's look. Director Adamson shoots much of the production in his native New Zealand, and it sure conjures images of Gondor and Rohan. If filmmakers aren't careful, the country's locales might become as overused by fantasy endeavors as Monument Valley was by westerns.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" fares much better in its smaller, quieter moments that test the mettle and morality of its young heroes. Thankfully, these outnumber the CGI pomp and circumstance.

Funny how the very technology that makes it possible to craft a blockbuster out of this adored material at times threatens to clutter its honest message.

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