COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Donna Yourkowski can't remember the last time she took her four children to the movies.
A Christian who home-schools her kids, she thinks most movies send them in the "wrong direction" morally. But she's taking them to see "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the Walt Disney Co. film based on the book by C.S. Lewis.
While refusing to call it a religious movie, Disney is using the same company that promoted Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to publicize "Narnia" through churches across the country. The goal is to create the perfect Christmas blockbuster, appealing to both secular and religious audiences.
"However you're a fan, it really doesn't matter to us," said Dennis Rice, a spokesman for Disney's distribution arm, Buena Vista Pictures. "We want you to become a fan of the movie."
Rice said only 5 percent of the marketing budget for "Narnia," which opens Dec. 9, targeted faith-based groups. Still, there were eight showings for church groups nationwide, including one in November for about 700 pastors and church staffers at the Colorado Springs headquarters of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.
The best-selling book, published in 1950 and the first of a series, follows four siblings sent to live in an old country house during World War II. They find the mythical Narnia through a walk-in wardrobe and help overthrow a white witch, whose spells have turned innocent victims to stone and frozen the landscape in perpetual winter.
There are Christian allusions throughout, from spiteful brother Edmund (Judas) and his noble brother Peter, a fellow "son of Adam." The heroic lion Aslan, an obvious symbol of Jesus Christ, sacrifices his life to save Edmund and is resurrected the next day in plenty of time to defeat the White Witch and her evil minions.
The story itself is popular with children and parents of all backgrounds, and is not preachy or overtly Christian, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, who has not seen the previews.
Unlike "The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $400 million worldwide last year despite its graphic violence, "Narnia" is a movie the whole family can see, Thompson said.
Thompson thinks only a few will be turned off by the marketing pitch to Christians.
"This is a movie based on a story told by a Christian writer who brought some of his spirituality to his storytelling," he said. "What happens (after) that point all depends on who's watching."
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., said Disney would be remiss if it did not go after a Christian audience — which is often ignored by Hollywood.
"It's just a matter of being all-inclusive and bringing in as many people as possible," he said.
The film was co-produced by Walden Media, a film production company bankrolled by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, a Presbyterian who favors films without sex or violence.
Greg Wright, senior editor for HollywoodJesus.com — a Web site that reviews movies from a spiritual perspective — thinks pastors see the movie as an evangelism tool and a sign of their growing cultural influence. Because of that, he said, pastors are being "used" to help promote the film even before seeing it.
"The tendency is to think we are engaged in this massive cultural war and to seize this opportunity and fight back," he said.
Parishioners at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Denver are being allowed to see the movie a day early. The church has rented out a 350-seat theater and tickets are going quickly, said Bruce Finfrock, the family ministries pastor.
The church will follow up with a panel discussion of the movie for adults and a Narnia-themed vacation bible school in July for kids.
Finfrock said the movie draws attention to basic family values and depicts what Christians believe to be a very real battle between good and evil in the world.
"As Christians, we celebrate the fact that good will ultimately win out over evil," he said, "and the movie validates what we believe to be true."