|Monday, December 12, 2005
10:34 - What do they teach in these schools?
I saw Narnia last night, and I can honestly say I'm blown away. Way, way better than I'd been expecting. But of course it's difficult to do any kind of cohesive post about it so soon after ingesting something like that; so even though I don't really feel any particular need to judge this movie as though it's in competition with Lord of the Rings (though Narnia's director in various interviews I can't find online seems to think he does), I guess I may as well take a page from some of my very earliest blog posts and just spew out a bunch of discontinuous and random observations.
First of all, let's get the inevitable "religion" stuff out of the way, because it's become an unspoken requirement that every reviewer has to spend at least a couple of paragraphs talking about it, either because he's a learned academic type analyzing the allegory, or because he's an avant-garde modern entertainment pundit who's never read the books and is shocked, shocked to see such a horrifying bit of ham-handed dogma in a kid's movie, of all things. So: Yes, it's the Jesus story. Congratulations for picking up on that. But it doesn't bug me. Really. I mean, we all know by now what C.S. Lewis' theological background was and why he wrote the Narnia books (he wanted to repackage the Christian mythos in a story that would appeal to his goddaughter). And sure, lots of Christian groups are urging a get-out-the-viewing campaign reminiscent of what happened with The Passion. But the way the allegory is handled in the movie is, to my great satisfaction, very subtle and tasteful. I'm sure many of my friends who will have been enjoying the movie up to the point where the Stone Table cracks will suddenly point and shriek Body Snatchers-style at the screen, allergic as they are to any form of Jesus except for this one. At one time in my life I would have been right up there with them, too. But you know—I really don't mind anymore. And besides, it's so well handled here—and so carefully true to how it was done in the book—that it works no matter on what level you choose to enjoy the movie, whether you're there with a church group or with a bunch of postmodern fantasy nerds. They let the story be what it be, and didn't play up or tone down the religious aspect for one audience or another, so potentially everyone who liked the book can enjoy the movie. I think that's a great accomplishment from a storytelling point of view.
So, yes, Narnia is a religious story, and a specific allegory, whether Lewis intended it as such or just let his personal devotions inevitably seep into the story. Lewis certainly claimed, though few believe him, that he didn't mean to write Narnia as religious propaganda—merely that he wanted to try to recreate what he considered to be a good story, only with animal characters. That's as may be. But the idea that good atheist children will see this movie and suddenly come over all aflame to go to church—I don't buy it. I didn't buy it with the book, and I don't buy it now. When I read it as a kid, I didn't even make the connection—I just thought it was a fun story, with some odd language toward the end about "Deep Magic" that I didn't really understand because it didn't seem to contribute to what I at the time thought was just an interesting adventure tale. Later, when I had the parallels pointed out to me, my first reaction—rather than revulsion and outrage at having been hoodwinked into reading indoctrinational tracts or anything like that, which was the other alternative—was to simply ignore the allegory, because I just liked the story. However I'd have reacted, it wouldn't have been to fall to my knees in testament, and anyone who worries about that happening with the Narnia movie is just a wee bit paranoid, to my way of thinking. (Besides, there are probably worse things that can happen to a kid. Just throwin' that out there.)
Still, it's hard to ignore newly added lines like "It is finished", except when it seems the director was clueless:
Question: What about the religious references in the film's climatic final battle and that line, 'it is finished.' That's taken straight from the bible.
Adamson: No not intentionally.
Question: It is Finished are words from the Cross.
Adamson: I actually honestly didn't know that. Seriously, I can't believe I didn't know that. The thing that I wanted and the thing I was really going for is for Aslan's sadness and having to get to this point -- there's a moment where Aslan and the White Witch stare at each other at the end as if they're both accepting their fate. He's going to have to kill her. She accepts that she's going to be killed. And to me I didn't want to send home the message that war is an ideal solution. I wanted Aslan to actually regret the fact that he's going to have to kill the White Witch. I wanted a line that he could turn to and really just say -- it's over. It's done.
I say we take him at his word, and afford Lewis the same courtesy.
So, apart from all that:
- One reason why comparisons to Lord of the Rings will ring hollow is that this movie sticks to the book like glue. Whereas Peter Jackson made significant narrative changes to the story up to and including removing whole characters and rearranging major plot points and rewriting the dialogue so that hardly a single word remained verbatim to the book, Narnia seems to have preserved every last page for the screen, and the only significant changes the screenwriters made were to add bits here and there to flesh out the narrative and the character development (the WWII-context prologue, the escape through the beavers' tunnel, the Rupert Everett fox, Edmund meeting Tumnus in the Witch's prison and having to endure her "outing" his betrayal, etc). Almost nothing was deleted, and most of the dialogue and even the action (like Peter's fight with the Wolf) is straight off the page. Yet sticking to the text seems to have worked really well in this movie, whereas past attempts to do the same thing with Tolkien have always fallen flat. I think maybe this is just a result of Lewis' writing being more visual and less ponderously historical, as well as his universe-building being far more whimsical. Though some might lump them into the same general bucket, Narnia makes Lord of the Rings look like Saving Private Ryan.
- The attention to detail and preservation of every little atmospheric observation in the book was astonishing, right down to the dead blue-bottle on the windowsill. (I guess part of this is the fact that there's so little text to work with in this movie—you can pretty much read the book in three hours, which is certainly not the case with Tolkien; so they could afford to leave everything in this time and even linger a bit over details.)
- I'd been interested to see whether they would have used the British or the American version of the book as their original source material; the way to know this was the name of the chief wolf, which in the British version was Maugrim, but was changed inexplicably to "Fenris Ulf" for the American version. They used Maugrim in the movie. If they do the sequels, they might have to confront additional editorial changes between the versions.
- Speaking of sequels—they seem to be fully on-board to do them, but I can't imagine how it'll work. Some of the books are so episodic and provincial that they hardly contribute to the overall storyline, and I can't see a story like The Silver Chair being marketed with anything like the same name-recognition or iconic vigor. (Aslan is barely even in that one, and the characters are all new.) I'd almost rather see them not do the sequels at all rather than risk them turning into low-budget direct-to-video releases. Besides, can you imagine them producing The Horse and His Boy today—or even The Last Battle? Forget the Christian significance, CAIR would be all up on Adamson's ass over the Calormenes.
- I'm very impressed with the handling of the tone of the story from scene to scene. Tension is built up expertly and defused at just the right moments. Tone is what would make or break this movie; it's what would make the Stone Table scene either uplifting or overbearing, or Edmund's betrayal of the others either poignant or infuriatingly petty. But it's all done with just the right touch. The perfect illustration of this is the Santa Claus scene, which I'd been anticipating they'd cut out entirely, just like Tom Bombadil—who ever heard of trying to make a serious fantasy movie with Santa Claus in it? —And yet they made it work, largely by never mentioning his name, and making him look very different from the usual American pop-culture vision of him (more of a medieval Father Christmas figure). Reading that scene in the book was jarring enough, and I thought seeing it on the screen would make it all the more ludicrous; but I found myself taking in the scene without any cognitive dissonance at all. Kudos to the director on this one.
- And kudos as well to the cinematographer! I don't know if it's just that New Zealand looks that way or what, but there seems to be something about it that lends itself to these extreme telephoto establishing shots from helicopters, which Narnia has in spades, especially during the battle scenes. (I can only guess at how they kept the shot so steady.) Pretty much any still-frame in the whole battle sequence could be made into a calendar shot. Gorgeous, gorgeous work. Peter Jackson used shots like this, only more sparingly and more spread out; but they're all over the place in this movie, and I couldn't get enough of them. I only worry that that kind of telephoto composition will become a cliché, just because it worked so well here that now everyone's going to use it.
- Speaking of clichés, it's getting so it's hard to do an "And then the armies collided" scene in a new and unique way, isn't it? Lord of the Rings already had the sturm-and-drang-style cavalry charge full of yelling and hoofbeats and clanging iron; and it also did the artsy "no sound but someone singing sadly in the foreground while a salvo of arrows descends on the vanguard" style, too, both within the same movie. But Narnia tried its best to go its own way, with the swelling music fading away into silence just as the front lines met. Very effective. Unfortunately, someone also decided that that very moment was also the perfect time to do a reel switch, which kind of ruined the effect a bit. This will be something to see on DVD.
- Great casting all around. I can't think of a character who didn't perfectly match my expectations—which may owe something to the fact that the character designs seem to have been modeled on Pauline Baynes' original illustrations, so that everyone—right down to the Witch's dwarf—looked how I expected them to. The Professor didn't get much face-time in the book, but he was expertly fleshed out on screen, and his last line before the coda is a perfect end to the episode. (I'm a little lukewarm on the stinger scene in the credits; it seemed a little unnecessary, or at least the trailing roar was.)
I wasn't sure whether to root for this movie or to hope it flopped. I certainly didn't go into it with any towering expectations. But in retrospect, I honestly can't think of anything I'd have preferred they'd done differently. I hate to sound like a shill for rampant CG animation taking over the domain of the now-evaporating 2D animation market, but it certainly seems as though it's made it possible for the first time for directors with real storytelling vision to bring to life classic fantasy stories that until now had been impossible to visualize anywhere except in the mind. And though I still would rather not so blatantly compare this movie to Jackson's, it seems that in both their cases they've made film adaptations that are going to be very, very hard to top thirty years from now when the inevitable remakes are proposed.