(AP) - Like its cousin, J.R.R. Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings," C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" was left to ferment for decades while movie technology caught up with the fantastic imaginations of the two British authors.
That's a good thing. Twenty years ago, or even 10, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" probably would have been filled with silly Muppet-like creatures rather than the dazzling computer-generated animals in Disney's epic adaptation.
As it is, despite their photo-realism, the digitally created talking animals sometimes do look silly. By the time all the leopards, rhinoceroses and rodents under the sun join the climactic battle sequences, you may be tired enough of these varmints to wonder whether Noah really needed to put two of EVERY species on his Ark.
Still, the visual overload is truly impressive _ not quite on the order of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but close. And dramatically, director Andrew Adamson (one of the directors on the first two "Shrek" movies) spins Lewis' fantasy classic with a well-defined, recognizable underpinning of sibling rivalry that could have easily taken place in the real world.
Add in Tilda Swinton, who is positively insane as the vile White Witch of mythical Narnia, along with winsome performances from four young unknown stars, and the film amounts to a rollicking work of pure escapism definitely worth your time and money.
Adapted from the first installment of Lewis' seven-part chronicle, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" opens during the London Blitz. The mother of the four Pevensie children is so worried about the Luftwaffe bombings that she farms the kids out to the country home of an eccentric professor (Jim Broadbent, in a tiny but colorful role).
There, the children tumble through the looking glass _ or rather, a piece of furniture filled with musty old coats _ into Narnia, an exotic domain where animals speak, unicorns and centaurs cavort and the witch Jadis (Swinton) has declared herself queen, casting the land into perpetual winter.
The Pevensies _ eldest boy Peter (William Moseley), oldest sister Susan (Anna Popplewell), second brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and young Lucy (Georgie Henley) _ are viewed by he inhabitants of this not-so-peaceable kingdom as the prophesied saviors of Narnia.
As such, the kids are targeted for elimination by Jadis and her gang of snarling wolves, while the forces of good that follow the Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) revere the Pevensies as demigods. Among the cast highlights is James McAvoy as the faun Tumnus, a hooved forest dweller who befriends Lucy.
Beyond a cryptic moment or two with the professor, no explanation is offered as to the magic involved (that will be left to whatever sequels Disney signs on for, depending on the success of this film).
Lewis' Lion has been interpreted as a representation of Christ, and the story certainly can be read as a New Testament fable. Yet it does not go beyond symbolism, and the film never turns remotely preachy.
Hearing Neeson's resonant but familiar voice come out of a lion's mouth is occasionally jarring. Other key vocal talents are more unobtrusive for their relative unfamiliarity, among them Ray Winstone and Dawn French as kindly Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Rupert Everett as the wily Mr. Fox and Sim Evan-Jones as Wolf, Jadis' foul lieutenant.
Swinton steals every moment, deftly blending seductress and crone in a single package. Her sincerity overcomes outrageous attire that has her looking like a vengeful Valkyrie in one scene, a woman with a giant icicle on her head in another.
Her intensity _ along with battle scenes and episodes of peril generated by Wolf and his pack _ push the bounds of the movie's PG rating. Parents with small children should note that the film is potentially at least as unnerving as "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which received a PG-13 rating.
The movie ends on a thoughtful note of whimsy, although the filmmakers toss in two stylistically inappropriate songs by Alanis Morissette and Tim Finn over the closing credits, along with an unnecessary, unsatisfying epilogue after the initial cast credits that should have been relegated to the deleted scenes on the DVD.
Of course, the epilogue hints of more to come in the land of Narnia, so fans are not likely to complain.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a Disney release, is rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments. Running time: 140 minutes. Three stars out of four.