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

You're not in Finchley any more...
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The Independent Culture

For a children's entertainment, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has probably drummed up as much controversy as any film this year. Considerable suspicion already surrounds C S Lewis's Narnia books, which, with their allegorical Christian proselytising, are anathema to many liberal parents, much as Harry Potter riled wizardophobic US fundamentalists. Given this film's heavy promotion to Christian audiences - and, in an unlikely tie-in, Governor Jeb Bush's doling out the books to Florida schools - you can't help feeling nostalgic for the days when blockbusters were only marketed in the name of honest, old-fashioned lucre.

So will The Lion... turn the little ones into wild-eyed zealots, clamouring to throw their Rowlings on the pyre? I doubt it. The film, by Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson, comes across simply as a solid teatime romance, pumped up with apocalyptic razzle-dazzle. Entertaining and often handsome, it's ultimately less captivating than it might have been, and will probably look a bit pallid to kids raised on the overkill of Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy.

The Lion... is actually most effective when at its quaintest. The battle scenes swamp the screen as you'd expect, but they look a little familiar: the same CGI software from The Lord of the Rings is actually used here, and you can't help feeling that someone has simply double-clicked the Orcs out and patched in minotaurs instead. What's really magical is the opening, when the four Pevensie children slip into a world of eternal winter: we're spellbound less by Narnia's epic landscape than by the simple promise of terra incognita suggested by its surreally prosaic starting point, a lamp-post in a forest.

The film painstakingly roots its story in the real world, with a vivid opening evocation of the Blitz. Bravely, the overall tone is kept rather fustily English in a way that feels true to Lewis: heaven knows what the kids in Des Moines will make of the line, "We're not heroes - we're from Finchley". The CGI beavers are voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French, Rupert Everett is a louche fox, and we don't hear an American accent until a wolf speaks (perhaps it's from Alaska).

On the minus side, the daring-adventure content feels routine rather than truly exciting, and we feel something less than awe when that Christ surrogate, the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), lopes in. He has a magnificent mane, to be sure: how many gigabytes, you wonder, per strand of sun-kissed hair? The one certifiably child-scaring scene is Aslan's sacrifice, as he's shackled and shorn by armies of Bosch-like demons, yet his subsequent resurrection, fully furred once more, is neither plausible nor dramatically satisfying (of course, some have thought the same about Lewis's original inspiration, but let's not go there).

The showdown of good and evil doesn't come across here as being overtly Christian, although it's unsettling that while Aslan's troops are variously accoutred in Greco-Roman, Arthurian and King-Harryish styles, there's a distinct Moorish look to the other camp's helmets. What's least palatable in the story, however, is not any religious dimension, but simply the blatant appeal to children's narcissism, and to a certain colonial spirit. Without appearing to merit it in any way, Lewis's four ordinary English kids walk into another world, learn they are the prophesied ones on whom that world's future depends, and are finally crowned kings and queens: the metaphysical equivalent of the bangers-and-mash suppers that used to be the ultimate reward in Beano strips. Neo in The Matrix had to train bloody hard to live up to his messiah-hood.

Yet even such a pure-minded film has the odd dash of perversity. When Lucy (10-year-old Georgie Henley, whose face appealingly glows with delight throughout) meets James McAvoy's faun, it seems oddly improper that a little girl should be making friends with a bare-chested, extremely hairy young man whose scarf rather suggests a disreputable 1950s student (you almost expect him to serenade her with Acker Bilk records). This is nothing to the overt sexuality of Tilda Swinton's White Witch, who effectively seduces the malcontent Edmond (Skandar Keynes, the most impressive of the children because so spikily petulant), offering him Turkish Delight as she wraps him in her furs.

Beware, you want to shout, this woman has been in avant-garde German art films! But Swinton undeniably steals the show. Her Witch is at once regal and cerebral, modelling her wintry couture - white dreadlocks and massive ermine shoulders - with fabulously testy hauteur. She even goes to battle in a fur and chainmail combination, in a chariot pulled by polar bears, as if modelling Alexander McQueen's new Boadicea collection.

Once Narnia's winter has thawed gorgeously to a digital spring, the film has largely used up its charm, and thereafter the visual palette veers to storybook kitsch - although the boiled-sweet reds rather stick in your mind. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe can be recommended as a sound panto substitute, but I can't honestly say it whets my appetite for another six episodes. I do, however, have great hopes of the forthcoming Philip Pullman adaptations, which you can guarantee Jeb Bush won't be rooting for.