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.

The mythological elements of Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest are less ancient than those in Christian tradition, and certainly less profound; but for moviegoers, they too may seem timeless. Here are the bag of cash, the slippery dame, the roadhouse, the gun, the white-collar stiff trying his best to go crooked. When I tell you that the action happens on December 24, and that one of the three leads is Bad Santa’s Billy Bob Thornton, the formula becomes complete. The Ice Harvest is the latest anti-Christmas movie, played more as film noir this time than as comedy.

It’s a pretty good noir, too. Written by two real pros, Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on a novel by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest begins with the traditional voiceover spoken in retrospective mood by a first-time criminal. He is a weary John Cusack, cast here as a mob lawyer who has dared to steal $2 million from the biggest gangster in Wichita. Within twenty-four hours, Cusack will skip town with the man who has urged him on, a local porn merchant (Thornton) who clearly is the steadier partner. First, though, Cusack must make it through Christmas Eve, a night he celebrates by driving through the pissing cold rain to his favorite strip club, there to ogle Wichita’s mistress of pole dancers, Connie Nielsen.

You will understand, automatically, that double-crosses will ensue, the bag of cash will go astray and the big gangster will threaten mayhem. As for the dame: Once you have noted the men’s abject fascination with the outer surfaces of women, you may be certain that Nielsen’s looks will prove as deceptive as they are alluring.

All this is standard. What makes The Ice Harvest stand out is the crispness of the dialogue, the sureness of the pacing and the unexpected depth of feeling that comes through.

“Guys of our age,” begins a sentence spoken at one point by Cusack to a very drunk buddy (Oliver Platt) who functions as his chubby and disheveled double. Platt is married to Cusack’s former wife, lives in what had been Cusack’s house, acts as a not very capable stepfather to Cusack’s children and boisterously, sloppily, hilariously voices the desperation that Cusack would now be feeling, if he weren’t hopping out of his skin with anxiety at having committed his crime. If Thornton is the tougher self that Cusack is trying to become, then Platt is the self he wants to escape–a desire that plays as both funny and poignant. By the calendar, Cusack is hardly ready to be one of the “guys of our age,” but his face in The Ice Harvest is more wan and puffy than you’ve seen before. His management of a perpetually quarter-drunk state is convincingly practiced; his demeanor before his children, appropriately subdued; his stabs at flirtation with Nielsen, the stuff of middle-aged shame.

Although The Ice Harvest may put its noir thrills into your lap a little too cozily, with too knowing a wink, the underlying ugliness of the story sometimes comes through with surprising intensity. There’s routine misogyny in the film but also blunt, shocking payback for it; generic cynicism about the corruption of a town but also precise observation of real, unencouraging American places.

And at the end, best of all, comes a happier version of redemption than you could have hoped for. I don’t want to overpraise The Ice Harvest, a film whose merits include an unassuming demeanor; but the ending may be the best thing of its kind since Joe E. Brown’s immortal “Nobody’s perfect.”

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They do still make ’em like that, although maybe they shouldn’t. The film version of Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha is now hitting the theaters, wrapped in prestige and promotions for the award-giving season. The production is deluxe; the lengthy running time calculated to impress Oscar voters; and the director, Rob Marshall, brings with him a past Academy Award nomination for Chicago. To the extent that “Hollywood” still means anything, this is it.

It means the story of Japanese women–their sufferings, their rivalries, their loves, their art–before and after World War II, as performed by Chinese actresses (Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh), shot on a set built in Thousand Oaks, California. The dialogue, written by Euro-Americans, is spoken in accented English, to remind us that the characters are foreign. Marshall’s direction is a definite improvement over his work on Chicago–thank God.