Throwing my lot in with those who would have all American cinema reduced to feel-good morally upright Falwell friendly tubthumping, I spent money to see an opening-weekend screening of the ungainly-named The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I tease, a bit. Because it's not really all that religious. Which is to say, it's no more religious than the book, and like the book you can seek out every single example of C.S. Lewis stuffing Christ imagery into it, or you can just accept it as a fantastic story of talking animals and magical furniture. I choose the latter, as I have always done.

Here's the thing: allegory is meant to be a separate layer of a text. Sure, you're an idiot if you ignore the allegory, or worse still don't notice it, but that's okay. You don't have to subscribe to the allegorical meaning. And in the case of Narnia, at least the first volume, the allegory is okay. The Christ-myth is an important Western text, and like many important Western texts, it is perfectly fair to reinterpret it with Christ as a lion and Satan as Tilda Swinton. Reinterpretation happens, and it's fine (e.g. Ulysses = The Odyssey, Clerks = The Divine Comedy, Bridget Jones' Diary = Pride and Prejudice). And I'd rather see a film reinterpret the Christ story than, for example, the Fisher King.

With all that out of the way, how is the movie? Pretty damn irrelevant, actually. It tracks very close to the book, as much or more than the first Harry Potter film (to name one). I hate to be in the position of defending Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, but I have to credit him with taking the story places that every reader hadn't already gone. Here, we basically have a moving illustration of the book, down to the specific dialogue in places. The one great addition is a new opening scene, dramatizing the Blitz and showing the war-torn world of the children protagonists in a way that the book only alluded to. Less successful is the climatic battle, which as everyone has already noted, expands a page-and-a-half of the novel into a 20-minute PG version of the Helm's Deep sequence from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

If you haven't read the book, is it worthwhile? Probably. It's a fun story, if a bit leaden and long at times. The effects are really quite good, although a couple spots are pretty dodgy; particularly the Son of Man Lions, Aslan, who is now my reference for high-quality muscular movement in a CGI animal. And I know that praising animated muscles is a weird thing to do, but Aslan has a sinewy perfection, even if he's voiced by the weirdly prosaic Liam Neeson.

The big problem is with Andrew Adamson's direction: the pace is very lackluster for most of the film, and the camera is very clearly being used to capture action, rather than to frame and direct the story. What energy exists comes largely through the performances, especially Swinton's bravura turn as the White Witch, which is so mustache-twirlingly evil that I'm actually looking forward to her reappearance in the sixth film, from the dullest novel in the series, The Magician's Nephew.

Assuming it gets that far. I've seen this in a couple of places, but I'm going to mention it anyway: the best possible analog for the Narnia series is the Harry Potter series. Which famously started out clunky and rough, largely because a hack director hewed too closely to a source, and robbed it of life. The big difference is that, by the release of the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, everyone knew that the books got a lot better. In the case of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they really don't. It's certainly not everyone's favorite (mine is the anti-atheism polemic The Silver Chair), but everyone agrees it's right near the top. Whereas the last two are almost universally scorned. So I have little optimism that even if someone like Cuarón comes along to breathe some much-needed life into the visuals, they'll be doing it with an inferior story.

Oh, and one other thing: the score sucks hard. The Imogen Heap song at the beginning sucks, the Alanis Morrissette song at the end really sucks, and the synth-heavy incidental music sucks a thousandfold times worse than the Tangerine Dream Legend score it heavily evokes, which at least had the decency to be composed in the 1980's.

Reviews in this series
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Adamson, 2005)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Adamson, 2008)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Apted, 2010)