For a children’s movie set in a mythical land and populated mostly by animals, the new adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has caused a fair amount of consternation, partly because of its Christian themes but mostly because of the evangelical outreach campaign accompanying it. The alarms first sounded in April, after the Orlando Sentinel reported that Walt Disney Pictures, the movie’s distributor, had hired Motive Marketing, which promoted The Passion of the Christ to the Christian community, to mount a similar campaign for this movie. In May the Atlantic published “The Apocalypse, Rated PG,” a revealing profile of conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose movie production company, Walden Media, has sunk $180 million into The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and hopes to turn Lewis’s seven-book series (1950-’56) into a franchise like The Lord of the Rings. In October Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino accused Governor Jeb Bush of participating in a “cabal of Christian commerce” by assigning Lewis’s book as part of the state’s “Just Read, Florida!” program.

Two and a half years ago, when Shrek director Andrew Adamson began adapting The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for Walden, the Narnia series must have seemed like fairly innocuous material, a landmark in children’s literature that has sold 85 million copies worldwide. But since then the cultural landscape has altered considerably: the 2004 presidential election awakened liberals to the concentrated political power of the country’s more than 30 million evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, and the phenomenal box-office success of The Passion of the Christ alerted Hollywood to their buying power. As the Sentinel pointed out, Disney’s marketing and distribution of The Lion is a dramatic shift for a company that, despite its reputation for wholesomeness, has always shied away from religiosity and has suffered a long boycott by Christian groups. In a country polarized between conservative Christians and secular humanists, the idea of someone like Philip Anschutz getting his foot in the door of the movie industry is enough to make some civil libertarians toss their jujubes.

Unfortunately for them, Adamson has brought Narnia to the screen in grand style, enlisting an army of makeup artists and computer animators to realize its fantastic creatures but never allowing the spectacle to obscure Lewis’s elemental tale of sin and forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption. Four young siblings, relocated to the country home of an old professor to escape the Nazis’ air war against London, step through an old wardrobe into Narnia, which has endured a hundred-year winter at the hands of the evil White Witch, Jadis (a hair-raising Tilda Swinton). The creatures of Narnia welcome the siblings as children of Adam and Eve; according to prophecy, they’re destined to rule Narnia, and their arrival triggers a revolution against Jadis led by the great lion Aslan. Lewis always argued that the book wasn’t an allegory, but elements of the story are lifted from the Gospels. Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the brooding younger brother, falls under the witch’s spell and, resentful of his siblings, betrays them. The Deep Magic of Narnia permits the witch to kill the boy as a traitor, but Aslan agrees to be executed in his place.

Lewis began The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, after having sheltered many children in his Oxford home during the blitz, but as he later recalled, the story didn’t really come together until he dreamed up Aslan. Making the Christ figure a lion, as opposed to a lamb, wasn’t a complete innovation—the Old Testament includes several references to the Messiah as a lion—but it dovetailed perfectly with Lewis’s tough-minded Christianity and faith in the power of good over evil. Aslan’s mighty bearing also lends poignance to his crucifixion atop the giant Stone Table, witnessed by sisters Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), when the witch orders the lion shaved: “Snip-snip-snip went the shears and masses of curling gold began to fall to the ground. Then the ogre stood back and the children, watching from their hiding-place, could see the face of Aslan looking all small and different without its mane. The enemies also saw the difference. ‘Why, he’s only a great cat after all!’ cried one.” After Jadis kills Aslan with a dagger thrust, the sisters weep over his body. But overnight it vanishes, the Stone Table cracks, and Aslan reappears, raised from the dead and ready to lead the climactic battle.

For decades the difficulty of realizing Aslan on-screen discouraged live-action adaptations of the book. “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure,” Lewis wrote to American writer Jane Douglass in 1954, “and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy.” Fifty years later movie magic has finally caught up with Narnia, and the new film’s computer-generated, photo-realistic lion is suitably awesome. Given regal voice by Liam Neeson, he’s a gentle giant with the children, instructing them in the wisdom of the Deep Magic. But Adamson makes terrifying use of the two moments when Lewis glories in the lion’s fury: before Aslan’s sacrifice, when Jadis angers him (“his great mouth opened wider and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life”) and during the epic battle that follows his resurrection, when Aslan finally pounces on Jadis (“with a roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamppost to the shores of the eastern sea the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch”). For a movie about forgiveness of sins, Narnia offers deliciously satisfying vengeance.

Adamson has sharpened the story’s impact by realizing on-screen the violent elements that Lewis, writing for young children, confined to a few broad strokes. The movie opens with an invented scene of German bombardiers approaching London in darkness and dropping their payloads; Edmund stands at the window of the family home, marveling at the explosions that light the sky until his older brother, Peter (William Moseley), pulls him to safety. It’s a wonderful dramatization of Edmund’s fascination with power, a flaw the witch will later exploit. Even more impressive is the battle, filmed on the rolling glacial plane of New Zealand’s South Island and better proportioned to the story than the insect frenzy of the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter, named for his counterpart in the New Testament, leads an army of lions, horses, unicorns, centaurs, giants, and eagles in a clash with Jadis’s army of wolves, bears, minotaurs, cyclopses, and God knows what else. Because the movie is rated PG, the sword thrusts kill without drawing blood, but there’s a palpable thrill when the two animal armies first clash on the field.

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The battle between the Narnians and the White Witch is nothing compared to the one that’s been brewing over The Chronicles of Narnia since the late 90s. British novelist and critic Philip Hensher took advantage of the Lewis centenary celebration in 1998 to attack the books as “poisonous” works intended to “corrupt the minds of the young with allegory.” Fantasy writer Philip Pullman denounced Lewis’s “sneering attitude to anything remotely progressive in social terms or to people with brown faces.” Others have faulted the books for their paternalism and Anglocentrism, complaining particularly about the Narnians’ prolonged struggle with the Calormenes, a dark-skinned race that worships the false god Tash. In 2001, after HarperCollins acquired the U.S. rights to The Chronicles of Narnia, the New York Times quoted an internal memo from the publisher urging that a forthcoming documentary make “no attempt . . . to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology.”

But that was 2001, and this is now. Disney’s deal with Motive Marketing involved a ten-month campaign to introduce The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Christian ministries and churches across the nation—whose endorsement of a movie, according to one analyst cited in the New Statesman, can mean an additional $50 million in box-office revenue and another five million DVDs sold. Churches have hosted screenings of a ten-minute trailer, and Christian Web sites have offered group tickets, merchandise, and study guides. John Quam, a national facilitator for the evangelical organization Mission America Coalition, told the National Catholic Register he expects the movie to win even more converts than The Passion of the Christ: “With The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, God is going to do something mighty.” Exactly what he’s going to do is, of course, the big question. The study guide on Mission America’s Web site explicitly correlates the story to Christian imagery/theology, and it’s not afraid to play hardball. To back up Edmund’s death sentence at the hands of the White Witch, it quotes Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That Deep Magic is a bitch.

The movie enjoyed a spectacular opening weekend, garnering strong reviews and grossing $67 million—more than the other top nine movies combined—but there’ve been no reports of Narnia-crazed tykes shedding the blood of sinners. As the movie’s audience and reputation grow, the secularist paranoia over its social effects will probably seem slightly absurd—even if you respect Christian ideals but consider the New Testament a fantasy, what’s the problem with those ideals being celebrated in a story that’s openly a fantasy? Prohibiting movies with Christian themes would cut a fairly large swath through European and American literature, the last thing any child needs now. Family movies always have some sort of conventional morality; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is unusual for its moral seriousness: it teaches children that they’re capable of terrible acts and that goodness can be a source of not just emotional but physical strength. Long may it roar.