In a recently discovered note by C.S. Lewis, from 1959, he wrote: "Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery and nightmare."
Which is exactly what doesn't happen in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" - at least not the buffoonery part. (Despite the film's PG rating, the mayhem is probably too intense for small children.) Andrew Adamson, the director of the two "Shrek" films, has done a highly creditable job of visualizing the first of Lewis's seven books about four children in the mythical land of Narnia where the animals do, indeed, talk.
The film, which is much closer in look to the book's original illustrations by Pauline Baynes than might have been predicted, works surprisingly well both as a boisterous fantasia and as the Christian fable that Lewis intended. (The film's prologue in blitzed London is the only serious departure from Lewis's text.) Having dutifully made my way through "The Matrix" movies, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the "Harry Potter" series, I wasn't sure I was up for another full-scale franchise. But "Chronicles of Narnia" is no machine-tooled commercial enterprise. Beneath all the special effects (many of which are actually special) you can detect something recognizably, and cherishably, human.
One of the reasons why children's films are rightly held in such disrepute these days is because they don't look as if they were made by people who were ever children themselves. Adamson successfully makes the transition to live-action filmmaking because, for him, as for C.S. Lewis, there is no clear aesthetic demarcation between fantasy and reality. The nymphs and fauns and minotaurs are of a piece with the children, who are blessedly un-Disneyfied. They have the eccentricities of actual children - which, in this case, means the valiant English variety that appreciates good manners and sardines on toast. I particularly liked Georgie Henley's Lucy, with her querulous big eyes and overbite, who discovers Narnia.
She does so, of course, by walking into the wardrobe closet in the country estate where she and her brothers and sisters are being sheltered from the war. But Narnia introduces them to a wider and more elemental war, with Tilda Swinton's White Witch holding sway over a land in perpetual winter. (One look at her will freeze you, too.) The messianic lion Aslan, the story's Christ figure if one chooses to see him that way, is on the side of the good. As these two battle it out, you won't be thinking of "Shrek." Spiritual redemption is a big theme of "Narnia," but on a purely entertainment level, the movie also goes a long way in redeeming the current sad state of children's fantasy filmmaking. Grade: A-
• Rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments.