The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first film installment of The Chronicles of Narnia (only a fool would doubt the serial's second coming, and third, and on until The Last Battle or the apocalypse, whichever comes first), and it begins with some guttural German phrases and bombs being loosed onto houses. It wouldn't work to have kids screaming before the White Witch appears, so the London Blitz has the look of an unconvincing video game. The film remains resolutely unrealistic throughout the prologue, during which the Pevensie kids—pint-size Lucy (Georgie Henley), rascally Edmund (Skandar Keynes), maternal Susan (Anna Popplewell), and little-man Peter (William Moseley)—are evacuated from their home in London and placed in a grim country mansion with only a housekeeper and a professor to keep them company.

If you weren't told as a small child, you probably know by now that the Narnia tales are Christian allegory. When Lucy stumbles into a mothball-filled wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek, she enters Narnia, a land where it's always winter but never Christmas. The Christ figure in the story is Aslan, a big cat with two lives; Judas is Edmund, a black-eyed boy with such a weakness for Turkish delight that he betrays his siblings. The symbolism is pervasive. Jewish law, for example, is represented by the ancient "Deep Magic" inscribed into a stone table that meaningfully cracks when Aslan is executed on top of it. During the Passion, the lion is attended by two women named Mary and Veronica—er, Susan and Lucy—who weep at his feet and wipe his furry face.

Whether or not C.S. Lewis intended them as such, the Narnia books are a persuasive form of sentimental eduction. In my opinion, knowing that the narrative is an allegory is the best guard against the way it heightens your emotional investment in Christian myth. (If a person must subscribe to a religion, I say they ought to do it with their rationality intact. C. S. Lewis himself didn't convert to Christianity until his 30s.) So I'd have been happier if the Pevensie children were decked out in little crucifix necklaces as they tromped around, just to make things explicit, or if the movie were rated R for religion and children under 17 were barred from the theater. But the film is carefully mute on the topic of Christianity. It's as if the screenplay were written by a speechwriter for President Bush, with coded references to the Bible and general emphasis on faith and country.

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The good news is that Tilda Swinton is fantastic as the evil witch who's put Narnia in a state of deep freeze. Swinton has been making the case in interviews that her White Witch is more Nazi than devil, and there's no denying Swinton's fascination is inflamed by her colorless eyelashes and snowy complexion. The witch gets more inhuman with every costume change, and by the time she's slaughtered Aslan and taken his mane for a trophy, the way her blond tresses mix with her lion-hair ruff is awesomely horrible. The motives of the White Witch may be obscure, but Swinton makes her villainy unshakable—better abolished by death than through persuasion.

William Moseley looks a bit like an Aryan youth himself, and his Peter is so blandly heroic that it becomes a bit unsettling. The CGI Aslan isn't inspiring either. But Georgie Henley makes an especially engaging Lucy, and her early scenes with the faun Tumnus (James McAvoy) are almost as magical as they were in the book. And Skandar Keynes is great as Edmund, even if the production designers didn't seem able to come up with powdery "sweeties" worth selling your soul for. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is decent entertainment—epic and scary and icily pretty. If only it were safe enough to send your freethinking children to.

annie@thestranger.com