London was suffering the height of The Blitz when the four Pevensie children were living there, and one night when a bomb landed too close to their house for comfort their mother decided this was the final straw, especially as Edmund (Skandar Keynes) rushed back into the place to save a photograph of their soldier father, endangering his own life and that of brother Peter (William Moseley) who followed to rescue him. So it is that the children are evacuated to the countryside, and a country house owned by Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent)...
And there they find a magical wardrobe while playing hide and seek, and the rest of the story plays out from that point. When this adaptation of C.S. Lewis's classic children's book was first released, the franchise that most were mentioning in relation to it was the then-recent Lord of the Rings trilogy, which followed as after all Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were friends at the time they were writing their novels. But what this more seemed to be was an attempt to create a Harry Potter style money earner with a Christian flavour, as after all Harry was criticised for being mixed up in witchcraft by elements of conservative Christianity.
So here were the Jesus-approved movies in the Narnia series, although financially Harry still beat them, the Lewis adaptations still did well enough to continue with follow-ups, in spite of the first book being the most celebrated of them by far. There had been a BBC Sunday afternoon television series which brought the books to family audiences, and had been well remembered by those who saw it, so there was a market for a big screen, special effects-filled version, of which this was only too happy to supply. It's just that in being faithful to the source while pulling in the direction of needing to display spectacle, here, if anything, the magic was blandly presented.
The storyline is now so well known that most of the pleasure audiences took in it was seeing that familiarity conjured up in movie form. The children themselves, the most important aspect thanks to them being our protagonists, were lacking in character other than what the actors brought to their roles, so it was Georgie Henley as Lucy who ended up stealing the show as she imbued her character with the right spark of life. Would that everyone else did the same, as a curious reverence to the material meant that the rest gave the impression of dutifully going through the motions without much personality. Even the celebrity voices for the animals, while distinctively themselves, did little to lift the stuffy mood.
Here Edmund is landed with the psychological angle that he is missing his father and this absence of a strong parental figure means that he goes to the bad when he wanders into Narnia and meets the wicked Witch (Tilda Swinton, appropriately icy and a nice bit of casting) who tries to win him over to her side. The Witch has the land in the grip of winter to fend off the plans of the Christlike Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), a lion who draws his forces for a battle which after the promising first half, proves to be a letdown as far as excitement goes. It had been so carefully rendered as a production that it was no surprise that its visual quality was not in doubt, yet nevertheless this did little to truly breathe life into a classic text which on the page might come across as quaint and old-fashioned. That was part of its charm, something missed here; it wasn't bad, but it didn't half drag the further it went along, and the feeling of a Christian lecture (its parent company, Walden Media, specialised in religiously slanted entertainment) groaned the more obvious it became, though to its credit it could also be seen as an allegory of World War II resistance. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams.