As Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” plays to millions of churchgoers nationwide, the Walt Disney Co. is planning to co-finance and distribute the C.S. Lewis children’s classic “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

C.S. Lewis

Disney has struck a deal with Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz’ Walden Media on the more than $100 million production, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Andrew Adamson, who directed “Shrek,” will begin filming this summer.

Walt Disney Pictures expects a Christmas 2005 release and will retain the option to release future films in the series.

“It’s a very, very ambitious production and one that we believe could be very important to the studio,” said Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, according to the Reporter. “The story and the characters are so inviting that audiences around the world will be excited for the franchise.”

The late C.S. Lewis, who was an Oxford professor, is regarded as one of the 20th century’s pre-eminent Christian thinkers.

Lewis’ seven-book “Chronicles of Narnia” series tells the adventures of four siblings in World War II England who enter the world of Narnia through a magical wardrobe. In Narnia, the children discover talking beasts, dwarfs and giants who have become frozen under the spell of an evil White Witch. The children cooperate with the lion Aslan to overcome evil.

Aslan is seen by many enthusiasts of the series as a Christ figure.

Walden Media CEO Cary Granat told the Reporter the film “has unbelievably great scenes for families, with four kids who leave a world consumed by war that they have no control over only to enter a world where a war is raging in which their actions are crucial to the outcome. It says a lot about empowerment and fractured families coming together.”

Lewis began the series in 1950 with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” followed by the prequel “The Magician’s Nephew” and the sequels “The Horse and His Boy,” “Prince Caspian,” “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” “The Silver Chair” and “The Last Battle.”

Walden Media, which was launched in May 2001, sees its purpose as “marrying popular entertainment and education.”

In December 2001, Christianity Today noted Anschutz, a billionaire Christian, owned one-fifth of America’s movie screens. A September 1999 Fortune article said he was “working deliberately and diligently” to do “something significant in American Christianity.”

Walden Media head Cary Granat, who formerly ran Disney-owned Dimension Films, told Variety in 2001 the C.S. Lewis Co. “saw eye-to-eye with us on exactly how to make this film.”

Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham told the Hollywood Reporter at the time, “It has been our dream for many years not simply to make a live-action version of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ but to do so while remaining faithful to the novel.”

“We are delighted to make this film with Walden Media, which we are confident will create the adaptation that my stepfather would have wanted,” Gresham said.

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