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A bigger but still faithful 'Narnia'

Take a deep breath and relax. Aslan doesn't spout blood from his paws or perform the miracle of the loaves and (talking) fishes. Nor have the Pevensie children been outfitted with iPods and Big Gulps in an attempt to woo the Nickelodeon demographic.

''The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- the first in what production partners Disney and Walden Media pray will be an ongoing franchise -- arrives as a solid, reasonably close cinematic approximation of C.S. Lewis's beloved children's book.

As expected, it's bigger, louder, rather more bruising, and entwined with the computer-generated DNA of Peter Jackson's ''The Lord of the Rings." The nabobs of Hollywood wouldn't be doing their job if it weren't, so those of us who prefer the slenderness of Lewis's originals -- his donnish aversion to overstatement -- will have to eat our popcorn and bear it. The filmmakers make many compromises in the name of epic scope and box office appeal, but they can't bend this story out of shape, and they have Tilda Swinton on hand to spank anyone who tries.

For those who still have no idea what this means: ''The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was the first of seven books about an alternate universe called Narnia, into which children of our world occasionally stumble. Animals talk, centaurs and satyrs romp, and a magnificent, all-powerful lion named Aslan pads through dispensing deeper meaning.

Lewis, a philosopher, writer, and Oxford professor who wrote the books during the post-WWII era, intended them as Christian allegory, but they don't have to be read that way -- they work equally well as secular stories of sacrifice and courage, and they're terrific fantasy novels in the bargain.

''Chronicles" the movie puts its eggs in the latter basket, with added muscle. It opens not on a rainy, bored Saturday but with the bombs of the London Blitz sending the four Pevensies fleeing to a backyard shelter: Peter the eldest (William Moseley), Susan the priss (Anna Popplewell), Edmund the sour (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy the big-eyed and indomitable (Georgie Henley). Their mother packs them off in a teary farewell scene to a distant country relative (Jim Broadbent, eccentrically bewigged), and only after establishing their isolation and fractious sibling rivalry does Lucy idly wander into that wardrobe. . .

And pops out into the snow, a half-naked faun named Tumnus (James McAvoy) looking at her queerly. Aside from its genteel borderline kink, that first Narnia sequence sets the tone for what follows: wondrous immersion in a hyper-realistic otherworld that's just a little chintzy around the edges. When Edmund follows later on, a dyspeptic viewer may notice the fake snow that clings to his clothes and never melts, or the fact that Mr. Tumnus's ears don't move, or the unconvincing digital matte-work in later scenes. The movie's seams show.

Against that are Aslan and -- the film's most terrifying special effect -- Swinton as Jadis, the White Witch and reigning Queen of Narnia. Eventually all the children make it over, whereupon they meet a doughty pair of beavers (Ray Winstone and Dawn French providing warm tea-cozy voices; the digital effects are especially fine here) who tell them about a centuries-old prophecy of four humans who will free the realm from Jadis's icy grip.

Now we come to a problem the movie never quite solves. When you read C.S. Lewis, it's easy to make the leap of literary faith and believe that children are capable of epic treks and feats; the book is about their finding the inner strength to do so. ''Chronicles" the movie gives us a flesh-and-blood Peter wielding a massive sword, and whether Moseley, a pleasant enough young chap, doesn't have the requisite charisma or whether director Andrew Adamson feels more comfortable around the CGI critters of ''Shrek" than around humans, the film's flesh and fantasy never convincingly combine. At times you may even be moved to laughter, which is more destructive to Narnia than anything Jadis can dole out.

Swinton compensates by giving the ice queen the eyes of a fanatic and a cold interest in cruelty. ''Chronicles" sticks a silly plastic ice-crown atop her head in the opening scenes, but it melts away soon enough and by the end she's an Amazonian berserker pinwheeling through the fight scenes with joy. Behind all of Lewis's games, the ''Narnia" books are about the conflict between civilization and chaos. Swinton, as she has done elsewhere, makes an unsettlingly good case for chaos.

For his part, Aslan has tawny fur that blows with the gentleness of a computer-generated wheat field, eyes that are liquid and human and -- here's a surprise -- the mellifluous voice of Liam Neeson. Personally, I want more of a basso profundo rumble out of my Aslan, but Neeson is regal, and the character's sacrifice atop the Stone Table, with Lucy and Susan as witnesses, is appropriately awful.

Adamson is very, very careful to stick to the tone of the book here -- as in Lewis, we bring whatever overlay of crucifixion and resurrection we choose to (or not) -- and only at the end of the final battle does he allow Aslan to say ''It is finished," as though throwing a toe-bone to Christian fundamentalists in the audience. The cultural dissonance between a property that can be sold to post-''Passion of the Christ" religious groups and ruthlessly merchandised in the usual commercial ways remains offscreen. Whether you want to pray to your plastic Hasbro Aslan figurine is up to you.

Anyway, the true deity in this movie is Peter Jackson. ''Chronicles of Narnia" is very much ''The Lord of the Rings" rebuilt to PG specifications, which services the box office at the expense of C.S. Lewis. It also cheats the youngest readers of an intense little story of moral ideas. A gracefully subtle metaphor about life's Deep Magic has become a war film; what was a one-chapter battle toward the end of the book is now a ripsnorting Armageddon that looks like something Hieronymus Bosch might dream up after a heavy meal.

Not for the under-8 crowd, then. Older kids and many adults will find ''Chronicles" suitable enough, with moments of real glory intermixed with awkwardness. The movie lacks the inspired casting of the ''Harry Potter" movies, though -- Henley as the grave, plucky Lucy makes the most lasting impression -- as well as the inarguable rightness of Jackson's ''Rings." The worst that can be said about it is that you don't come away thirsting to see the next installment as soon as possible, and that Lewis's larger cosmology remains blurry. Is Narnia necessary? You'll just have to take it on faith.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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