Odd But Sincere Entertainment
|Starring:||Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, and Jim Broadbent|
A slick professional flyer appeared hung on my mailbox a week ago advertising a gathering by a church at a local theater on Sunday morning for a special screening of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.” Day care was to be provided and a service of some sort would follow the screening.
I point this out because while “Narnia” is clearly a Christian allegory, one must not have to proscribe to Christian beliefs in order to enjoy the film. “Narnia” is an odd piece of entertainment that succeeds in its restraint despite a direct marketing campaign that would use it, regardless how well-meaning, as religious propaganda. Christmas may be under assault, so say the radio talk show hosts, but one of the biggest films of the holidays subtly exposes the reason for the season. Of course, the core reason may be based on another story from the Bible, the birth of Jesus, but the religious nature of “Narnia” will nonetheless promote Christian philosophy.
The story is classic. During World War II in England four children are separated from their parents and sent to live in the country in the old mansion of a Professor. The opening scenes are unexpected (for me, anyway, because I haven’t read the source material). Planes fly over London and drop scary bombs on innocents. The threat is real but, like all the violence in “Narnia,” sanitized in order to preserve the “PG” rating.
Once at the country home, the children of various ages grow bored turning to a simple game of hide and seek. The youngest of the foursome, the adorable Lucy (Georgie Henley), discovers a mysterious wardrobe covered in a sheet in a barren spare room. She hides within the imposing piece of furniture and soon enters the snow filled magical land of Narnia. In time, all four children will enter the wardrobe and have a grand adventure.
What is unique about “Narnia” the film is what it doesn’t do. Instead of immediately inundating us with magical images produced by the best computers and finest special effects artists, we are gradually introduced to the world and its inhabitants. And each new creature is so well constructed that there isn’t a somewhat distracting sense of awe. I say “distracting” because sometimes the computer magic overshadows the story breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. There is a point in some special effects laden extravaganzas where the effects themselves are known to the audience to be effects, and while we admire them, they take away from the story-telling attempted.
Unfortunately, the story told in “Narnia” is as frigid as the initial appearance of the magical world. While the elements of the Christian allegory are present, the strongest characters aren’t placed center stage and developed in a way that gives the viewer time to engage with them. Primarily, I’m talking about the Lion called “Aslan,” who appears later in the film. Voiced by Liam Neeson, Aslan is the Christ figure, and, yet, we hear only sparingly from him before the prophecy runs its course. His death didn’t move me because I never had time to feel much for him. I think that in the novel, which I haven’t read, the development would have been different and undoubtedly more effective.
Parents must be warned that the youngest viewers will likely be frightened greatly by the widely publicized crucifixion scene. This scene is, like all the violence in the film, sanitized in a way that is devoid of blood and any hint of gore. But honestly the lack of bloodletting will leave more mature audiences cold. Aside from having trouble connecting with some of the characters, I never believed that anyone was at any kind of appreciable risk. Contrast this with the great battle toward the end of “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” in which I actually believed that key characters would be wiped out, annihilated. The tension was almost unbearable. “Narnia” may thrill younger viewers but leave older ones wanting.
Troubling is the question of what exactly is the “Narnia” audience demographic. Director Andrew Adamson previously struck gold with his ultra hip “Shrek” films that contained jokes, targeted at the older viewers, the punch lines of which sailed safely over the heads of impressionable minds. Universal entertainment was assured and boffo box office the result. “Narnia” is a little slow early on and the special effects on a large scale don’t kick in until late in its two plus hour running time. Therefore, I would be surprised if viewers under 10 years old would tolerate it to its conclusion. Still, the deliberate story development is literate and is the kind of entertainment we hope that children will embrace. I hope my read of children’s affection for the film will be wrong and young audiences are captured. This will inevitably lead to better child film fare.
I’ve kept the slick flyer that hung from my mailbox, the same flyer that hung on every other mail receptacle on my street. There is nothing wrong with marketing “Narnia” in this fashion, after all, the series of novels were written by C. S. Lewis widely known as a Christian theorist and writer. It is important that while certain parts of the film borrow extensively from Christian theology, the film stands alone as solid entertainment no matter what your religious beliefs encompass. And discussion of the film’s themes interests me, perhaps, I’ll attend the early morning screening on Sunday.