Imitation of Art
According to an invaluable reporter on American religious life, Jeffrey Sharlet, the DVD of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ serves as a token of faith for many evangelical Christians. They display it on the bookshelf in a place of honor--still in its shrink wrap. The movie they watch, again and again, is Peter Jackson's The Return of the King.
Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media have clearly aimed at the latter target in making The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In adapting this first novel in a greatly popular children's series, they have made something that comes virtually from next door to The Lord of the Rings, in both source and execution. The books emerged from the halls of Cambridge and Oxford, where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were colleagues, friends and fellow Christians; and the productions are also neighborly, having both sprung from the vicinity of Wellington and Auckland. For the director of Narnia, Disney and Walden chose Andrew Adamson--like Jackson a New Zealander, who shot the film in his native country using many crafts artists from Lord of the Rings. That much you can learn just by reading the credits; and when Narnia comes on the screen, its imitative ambition becomes plain to see in the deployment of computer-generated armies across vast stretches of Kiwi landscape.
And yet, as we learn from the contrasting uses to which the lucrative evangelical audience has put The Passion of the Christ and The Return of the King, talent does matter, even to those who claim to see with eyes of faith. I suppose, then, that Disney and Walden may have to settle for a middling position with this movie, on neither Gibson's heights nor Jackson's highway. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--the first moving-picture version of Lewis's story to combine live action with animation--is conceived and marketed as a thoroughly halfway production: neither too godless for those who want a full measure of Christian allegory nor too holy for the equally lucrative Harry Potter enthusiasts, who want to enjoy their magic without being bothered by doctrine. It is spendthrift in budget yet cautious in style, steadfast in holding to Lewis's imagination yet timorous about using any of its own.
If the lukewarm were still being spewed out, this might have meant trouble for Narnia. In today's market, though, I bet this kind of tepid ought to fetch better than $200 million in domestic box office.
And why shouldn't it? As directed by Adamson, whose most notable previous credits were for Shrek and Shrek 2, Narnia is as handsome a beast as Aslan, its animated lion hero (voice of Liam Neeson), if ultimately as tame. Of course, Aslan isn't supposed to be tame--but we'll get to that, after the four Pevensie children are evacuated from London during the Blitz.
They go first to a mysterious old professor's country estate and then, by way of a misbehaving stick of furniture, to the land of fable, where the snowy woods glisten with a metallic sheen, rocky cliffs pile up like sheer-walled threats, a palace drips icicled columns (as grand and hallucinatory as in Hans Poelzig's Berlin Schauspielhaus) and the villainess, with sparkly eyelashes and putty-painted face, is scary enough to be played by Tilda Swinton. In short, everything in Narnia is as it should be or slightly better, from the kids themselves (all models of bucktoothed, rosy-lipped English youth) to the White Witch. (Though Swinton's followers are a niche market, inconsiderable next to either the Christian or Potter audience, the producers have taken care to sell to them, too. Now her fans can see what is surely her apotheosis, as she drives into battle in a chariot drawn by polar bears.)
All ticket buyers will get their money's worth. What they won't get is red meat, such as Mel Gibson threw to (or at) the audience. When Aslan sacrifices himself to atone for the younger Pevensie boy's sins, the sacred act is carried out by torchlight before a towering cromlech, amid a full cast of computer-generated harpies, Minotaurs and cyclopses. There is ceremony; there is pathos; but there is no crucifixion. One stroke, and the agony is finished. Parents of small children and liberals who want more preaching than creatural suffering will think this an improvement over Gibson's movie. But just as the blood and terror are missing, so too is any deep sense of conviction.
By the same token, moviegoers who want invention on the screen and not just high competence will miss the bravura of The Return of the King. In directing that film, Jackson dealt with much the same store of symbols as does Adamson in Narnia: a Christlike warrior, a hateful and grotesque enemy, a harrowing of hell, an ultimate battle. Adamson realizes these elements fully and then stops, where convention ends. (You can tell the spot; it's invariably marked by a reaction shot.) Jackson fulfilled the conventions and then pushed beyond, creating scene after scene that you'd never witnessed before.
I think you have already seen Narnia, even if you haven't seen it yet. That can be a strength for a market item; and since we live in a culture in which even religion is judged by its economic power, I expect the picture to be welcomed for its middlingness. It is, after all, a well-crafted commodity; and if it makes enough money from enough niche audiences, commentators will hail it as an instant classic, while claiming it has shown the way toward peace in a bitterly torn America.
Centrism forever! If you resist having Narnia's box-office reports foisted on you as a guide to the social good, you might want to recall the words of a better critic than I. "The desire for a certain kind of product," he wrote, "does not necessarily beget the power to produce it, while it does tend to beget the illusion that it has been produced."
That, of course, was C.S. Lewis.