First things first: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn't the second coming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although it shares the same epic scope as Peter Jackson's terrific fantasy series, the tone is lighter and the characters don't have the same grandeur or moral complexity as the tormented souls who inhabit Middle Earth. Also, while Rings appealed to audiences of all ages, Wardrobe is squarely aimed at younger moviegoers. That's not to say that everyone over the age of ten will be bored out of their skulls. With its crisply told narrative, excellent production values and great ensemble cast, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the best big-budget spectacles Hollywood has released this year. Still, the film will work its strongest magic on children, who may return home after seeing the movie and promptly peek into their own closet in search of a passageway into the magical land of Narnia.

Perhaps that's the way it should be. After all, C.S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia, always intended the seven-book series to be primarily for kids. Re-reading the novels as an adult, it's difficult to look past the author's cutesy writing style and clumsy moralizing. There's also the thorny issue of the books' Christian content, which becomes more and more pronounced as the series progresses. (The Last Battle will be a particularly tough book to adapt if the film franchise makes it that far.) Young readers, though, can enjoy the novels purely as whiz-bang fantasy adventures, and that's the approach director Andrew Adamson takes with the film version of Wardrobe. If you come to the movie specifically looking for spiritual overtones, you'll probably see them here. But Adamson wisely refrains from drawing attention to the allegory and instead focuses his camera on the pomp and pageantry of this fantasy realm.

There's one other major difference between The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Where Jackson labored over paring J.R.R. Tolkien's dense novels down to a manageable length, Adamson actually adds material to Lewis' slender story to punch it up to a more epic 140-minute runtime. For example, while the novel begins with the four Pevensie children-Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy-already on their way to the country estate of Professor Kirke to escape the dangers of World War II-era London, the movie opens with a harrowing sequence that shows the Pevensie family's house being destroyed during an air raid. Adamson also uses this new introduction to establish the conflict that drives much of the film, namely the sibling rivalry between Peter (William Moseley) and his younger brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes). In general, all of the new scenes fit very smoothly into the narrative; in fact, some of them actually flesh out details and motivations that Lewis skimmed over in the book.

But don't worry, Narnia purists: The central story remains unchanged. Not long after arriving at Professor Kirke's house, the youngest Pevensie, Lucy (Georgie Henley), climbs into the titular wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek and emerges in Narnia. Her siblings don't believe her story at first, but eventually all four of them wind up in this strange new world, where animals can talk and mythical creatures like fauns and centaurs roam the landscape. Narnia is currently in the cruel grasp of the White Witch (a deliciously evil Tilda Swinton), who has kept the land blanketed in ice and snow for 100 years. Much to their surprise, the children discover that they are meant to play an instrumental role in ending the Witch's reign, with the help of the true King of Narnia, a majestic lion named Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). But they have a traitor in their midst; Edmund has allied himself with the Witch, who promised him the throne and all the Turkish Delight he can eat.

Unlike his friend and colleague Tolkien, who described Middle Earth in voluminous detail, Lewis left a great deal about Narnia up to the imagination. That allows Adamson more leeway in designing the look of his film than Jackson enjoyed on Rings. The movie is rich with detail, and the obvious care that's been put into the costumes and sets lends a compelling realism to this fantastical realm. The climactic battle between the armies of Aslan and the White Witch in particular is a marvel of production design. And while Jackson's influence can certainly be felt in Wardrobe (much of the film was shot in New Zealand and Rings special-effects guru Richard Taylor oversaw the creature work), ultimately Narnia and Middle Earth emerge as distinct worlds.

Making his live-action directorial debut here, Adamson (who previously helmed the Shrek movies) isn't always comfortable juggling the multiple technical elements that this kind of large-scale film demands. The framing is too static at times and the cutting between the real locations and soundstages isn't always as seamless as it should be. Adamson does deliver on the film's various set-pieces; the aforementioned battle sequence features better action and effects work than almost anything in the most recent Harry Potter movie. He also has a close rapport with the young leads and coaxes strong, if occasionally awkward, performances out of all four of them. Keynes and Henley are the real finds here, turning the characters that are most susceptible to caricature into believable children. Time (and box office) will tell if we'll see another installment in The Chronicles of Narnia, but Wardrobe definitely leaves the audience wanting more.

-Ethan Alter