The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and (2005)

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson, James McAvoy, Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Jim Broadbent, Rupert Everett, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell

Directed by: Andrew Adamson

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Tilda Swinton as Jadis the White Witch and Skandar Keynes as Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

First there was Lord of the Rings. Then there was Harry Potter. Now the latest kids' classic to hit the big screen is CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in a projected series of Narnia films (complete with action dolls and McDonald's tie-ins, naturally).

Evacuated from London during the Blitz, the somewhat unpleasant Pevensie children, pompous Peter, boring Susan, sulky Edmund and cherubic little Lucy, find themselves the guests of an eccentric professor who lives in a massive stately home in the countryside. In between bickering and sniping at each other in cut glass accents, drama school accents, they play a game of hide and seek, during which Lucy falls through the back of a wardrobe into another world. A spectacularly beautiful world ruled over by a cruel ice queen, Jadis, the White Witch (the splendid Tilda Swinton); a world where it's always winter but never Christmas and the inhabitants live in fear and terror of the secret police, a savage pack of wolves who terrorise the land, persecuting innocent foxes, badgers and other marvellously CGI-animated cute critters.

Georgie Henley as Lucy and James McAvoy as Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

One such critter is the adorable Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy), who befriends Lucy on her first foray into Narnia, and subsequently lives to regret it when he's turned into stone by the evil Jadis. Edmund, meanwhile, receives a somewhat chillier welcome from the White Witch herself, although, bribed with Turkish delight (of all things) he does agree to deliver his siblings into her hands. And so it's not long before all four children find themselves in Narnia, where they're greeted by the gorgeous Mr and Mrs Beaver (comically voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French). And with Edmund gone AWOL, it's up to the remaining three to seek the aid of the Messianic Aslan, a huge, beautiful, noble lion, perfectly voiced by Liam Neeson (well, it had to be him or Morgan Freeman, now didn't it?).

Yet as Aslan returns to Narnia, so too does the spring, and soon the battle lines are drawn for a final epic fight between the forces of good and evil. Yes, it's time for another Peter Jackson patented slow motion charge to sweeping strains of full string orchestra, before a sickening crunch as the two armies collide - although this time there's no blood to be seen, and we do get leopards, cheetahs, polar bears and rhinos in the charge, not to mention beavers wearing armour - how cool is that?

Actually, on the whole, Narnia is deliberately uncool, which comes as a bit of a welcome relief - director Andrew Adamson is after all the man behind the sly humour and postmodern innuendoes of Shrek 2. Instead, the film is utterly, charmingly cute, with fantastic special effects, an enchanting attention to detail (there's always some delightful little creature scuttling about in the corners of each shot) and some really good performances from adults and children alike.

Liam Neeson voices Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The script is a little uneven at times and the children rather two-dimensional, but then again they are in the book. As for the much vaunted 'Christian message', this is handled well, with Aslan's self-sacrifice as upsetting and moving as his resurrection is triumphant - brainwashing it definitely ain't. Definitely more child-friendly than Harry Potter, there is none of the gothic darkness or complex plotting of The Prisoner of Azkaban or The Goblet of Fire, and while Tilda Swinton is magnificent as the White Witch, she isn't nearly as terrifying as Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort. Whether today's kids will relate to the prissy Pevensies as closely as they do to Harry, Ron and Hermione remains to be seen, but no-one could resist warming to James McAvoy's sweet Mr Tumnus or the cosy Beavers (even if you do keep expecting Mr Beaver to start swearing in cockney.), not to mention Father Christmas himself, aka James Cosmo, the only actor in Scotland.

Charming, entertaining and at times even exciting, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe opens the door to a magical world guaranteed to warm even the hardest heart. Yes, the children are rather annoying, and yes, it's almost as hard to avoid Narnia merchandise as it is to avoid the ubiquitous King Kong, but if, in the course of writing a review, a hardened old cynic like me can shake off my scepticism, so, I think can you. Turkish delight, anyone?

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