- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a $150 million film combining religion and fantasy, is being pitched to churches as a cross between “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Not only was the anticipated blockbuster shot in New Zealand, like the Rings saga, but Aslan — the lion who lords over the mythic world Narnia — is an explicit Christ symbol. The film was co-produced by Walt Disney Studios and Walden Media, the latter a Boston-based firm known for religion-friendly fare such as “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

Voiced by actor Liam Neeson, Aslan dies for one of the characters — a British schoolboy — and then is resurrected to defeat the White Witch, ruler of Narnia.

Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, hedged on whether the film reproduces the Christian character of the book.

“We believe we have not made a religious movie,” he said. “It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.”

However, Zondervan, the evangelical imprint for publishing giant HarperCollins, is calling the film’s release one of the season’s “biggest religion stories.”

“It is the product for the fall,” spokeswoman Jana Muntsinger said. “In the Christian world, they are just salivating over this. C.S. Lewis is the evangelical gold standard.”

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was written by the British author C.S. Lewis as the first published book of a series of seven Narnia children’s books that has sold almost 100 million copies over 55 years.

It premieres Dec. 7 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Prince Charles and Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, will preside at a glittering reception decorated with ice sculptures and white carpet reminiscent of Narnia’s 100-year winter.

“It’s my understanding that His Royal Highness loved these books as a child and is excited to see the movie,” Mr. Rice said.

Key to the film’s success is a fan base of several generations of evangelical Christians who have grown up reading the Narnia books. Motive Entertainment, the same company that promoted “Passion,” was hired by Disney to promote “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” among the church set.

Dozens of churches around the country are listed at narniaresources.com as “sneak peak” sites for presentations about the movie from co-producer Douglas Gresham, Mr. Lewis’ stepson, or from contemporary Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman.

The site also is hawking group tickets and “customizable church outreach tools” such as DVDs, door hangers, specialty e-vites and posters.

Mr. Gresham spent six months on the set ensuring that the story line stayed true to its Christian values. In his new book, “Jack’s Life,” Mr. Gresham described his stepfather as “influenced by the Holy Spirit of God.”

The director, Andrew Adamson, is the son of missionaries. Walden president Micheal Flaherty, who has staked his personal reputation on the film’s adherence to the book’s Christian message, attends the nondenominational Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass.

“We got as faithful an adaptation as possible,” said Mr. Flaherty of the yet-to-be-rated movie. “All the key scenes and the key dialogues are there.”

The involvement of Disney — which was boycotted from 1997 until this year by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for what the Baptists called its “anti-Christian and anti-family direction” — has raised some eyebrows.

“I don’t think they would have done Narnia seven years ago,” said Dwayne Hastings, vice president for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “If nothing else, Hollywood has discovered there’s a market for traditional fare.

“Disney sensed Americans are staying away from movie theaters, and they had to do something. This is a wise business move.”

Disney also has arranged for Narnia-themed exhibits at shopping malls nationwide and commercial tie-ins with companies ranging from McDonald’s to Kodak.

Others are joining the bandwagon: publishing giant HarperCollins has readied a massive printing of 140 Narnia-themed books, with special editions earmarked for thousands of Christian bookstores via Zondervan.

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