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THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Christians, heathens and everyone in between will be inspired to hold hands and sway to the gentle rhythms of this epic yarn. C.S. Lewis' source material -- the first book in a series of seven Narnia adventures -- sprinkled Christian allegories throughout a fantasy tale that was aimed primarily at children, and the movie steadfastly respects Lewis' intentions. Like the best kid flicks, it never talks down to its target audience, and its religious themes -- issues involving honor, forgiveness and redemption -- embody the true spirit of Christianity and in effect serve as an antidote to the sadistic theatrics of Mel Gibson's garish snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. With its story of four plucky siblings attempting to save a strange land from the machinations of an evil queen (Tilda Swinton), this seems as inspired by the recent Lord of the Rings flicks as by anything on the written page. But the child actors are appealing, the supporting critters add color, and the brisk storyline fuels the imagination. HHH

THE FAMILY STONE Initially more reminiscent of the brittle Thanksgiving yarns Home For the Holidays and Pieces of April than the warm-and-fuzzy titles usually foisted upon us at Christmas, this ensemble piece centers on a liberal New England clan whose members prove to be close-minded when it comes to accepting a conservative prude into their abode. Oldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family, but for the most part they treat their guest poorly, finding it impossible to warm up to her views. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha does a nice job of capturing the way that dissimilar people must try to coexist peacefully at familial gatherings. But refusing to follow through on the messy reality of his story, he shamelessly changes direction by offering every character (except the one designated as sacrificial lamb, of course) a happily-ever-after fadeout by making sure no one is left out in the cold -- either physically, mentally or emotionally. HH 1/2

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE It wouldn't take much for Fun With Dick and Jane to emerge as a superior remake, given that the 1977 original looks especially dismal these days. That laughless comedy employs two actors of marginal comedic abilities -- Jane Fonda and George Segal -- in a lumbering yarn about a well-to-do married couple who turn to crime once the husband loses his job. This new version one-ups its predecessor right out of the starting gate by casting two bona fide comedians -- Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni -- in the central roles. This is strictly a congenial, end-of-year trifle aimed at providing families with somewhere to go after all the presents have been opened. It's a pleasant enough diversion, offering a few chuckles, allowing Carrey to occasionally mug, and keeping the paying customers satisfied. HH 1/2

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE The fourth installment in the J.K. Rowling screen franchise clearly isn't afraid of the dark. There's a reason that this is the first movie in the series to earn a PG-13 rating, as director Mike Newell, the first British director attached to this veddy British series, and scripter Steve Kloves, forced to whittle down Rowling's enormous tome, steadfastly refuse to coddle the youngest audience members, "family film" status be damned. The series' greatest strength -- namely, the dead-on portrayals by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione -- never fails to deliver (these kids are wonderful together), and even an overstuffed plot doesn't slow down the proceedings as much as convey that there's much at stake in Harry's increasingly sinister world. HHH

KING KONG Does Peter Jackson's heavily hyped remake of the 1933 masterpiece improve on its landmark predecessor? Of course not. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any area in which it's better than the original -- even the occasionally crude effects from '33, crafted from blood, sweat, tears and tiny models, stir the soul more than the CGI trickery on view here. But on its own terms, this new version gets the job done. In essence, Jackson has taken the 103-minute original and stretched it out to a 190-minute running time. The three-act structure remains intact, however, as filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) journey to Skull Island, meet the great ape, and bring him back to New York City. Despite an abundance of thrills, Jackson respects that King Kong is above all else a love story between woman and beast -- and it's a measure of Watts' skills that she generates enormous chemistry with an animal that's created out of computer codes rather than flesh and blood. HHH 1/2

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA Director Rob Marshall's adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel plays like a Disney version of a Zhang Yimou movie, though the end result isn't as dreadful as that designation might suggest. While set in Japan, this examines many of the same sorts of clashes as Zhang's Chinese epics, yet Marshall (Chicago) isn't able to transform his film into anything more than a lush melodrama filled with pomp and pageantry. As movie artifice, it's above average, but it goes no deeper than that. The struggles of the characters -- particularly the penniless foster child who grows up to become the legendary geisha known as Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) -- make for adequate screen entertainment, though the movie curiously mutes the tragic dimension of women being bartered over and sold like trinkets in an open-air marketplace. The entire cast is fine, but the best performance comes from Gong Li as the seasoned geisha who makes life difficult for Sayuri. HH 1/2

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