Saturday, April 08, 2006

Aslan is on the move

We watched The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe last night.

It's a good movie. Very good, actually. So I feel kind of bad that I'm now going to rip on it for not being as good as The Lord of the Rings.

I am not an expert on the Narnia books at all. In fact, I haven't even read them. The only one I've read is, appropriately enough, Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe; but even that wasn't of much use, since it's been literally twenty-five years since I read it. This was another of those "Kid, you're being annoying, so here's a book that you're to read and not say a word until you're done with it" volumes forced upon me by my mother. She gave it to me while we were on the road as a family, literally: we were moving from Portland, OR to Western New York in early summer of 1981. I was riding in our Ryder truck with my father, while my sister rode in our pickup truck with the camper in tow behind it. We were about halfway across the country -- somewhere in Nebraska, I believe -- when Mom gave me the book, and I read it in a single day, finishing up as we arrived at a Holiday Inn somewhere near Gary, IN.

Sadly, my mother didn't figure that I would read the book in one day, so she didn't keep any of the subsequent volumes around when packing her "Not-quite-emergency stuff, but stuff we might wanna have around anyway" box. No matter, though -- I tried a number of times over the next couple of years to read whatever the next book was (Prince Caspian, or Voyage of the Dawn Treader), and I just was never able to get back into the series again. I'll try again someday soon, however: last fall I bought a single-volume omnibus of the Narnia series.

(On a side note, just to place things in their proper place in my literary life, a week or so before my mother gave me Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, she had also made me read The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, which is the first book in the Prydain Chronicles. There, too, she failed to keep the second book, The Black Cauldron, available; but unlike Narnia, I was more than able to finish that series, reading all five and the handful of extraneous stories Alexander wrote in that same summer. I would read The Hobbit a year later, and The Lord of the Rings a year after that -- but only after reading Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever in between. Oh, and somewhere in there, Mom also infected me with John Bellairs. In a sense, my whole reading life since then has been an attempt to rediscover the sense of discovery I enjoyed in those two years between the ages of ten and twelve. I guess my own "Golden Age" of speculative fiction came a little early.)

Anyhow, back the movie of Narnia. It really is good. I honestly can't be sure how faithful it is to the original material, but it feels pretty close, although I'm pretty sure CS Lewis didn't open up with a harrowing scene depicting the bombing of London. To be honest, that entire scene felt dreadfully out of place to me, and because of it, I felt like the movie took longer to set in that it should have.

So the kids are packed up and sent off to live in countryside England (the Shire, perhaps?), where they have another round of brief adventures before Lucy finally discovers the enchanted wardrobe and the world it "contains". All this prologue stuff is necessary, I suppose, to establish certain bits of character on the part of the kids: Lucy's the adventurous one, Susan's the cautious one, Peter's the "stiff upper lip, lads!" one, and Edmund's the rebellious and easily tempted one. (We are, of course, forever indebted to Lewis that he didn't just go ahead and name Edmund "Judas", but more on that later.)

Even though all this prologue helps to establish who our characters are, it all has this weird, almost unnecessary feel to it, and about five minutes into it, I'm thinking, "OK, I get it. Let's get going here." I'm not adverse to stories that take their time unfolding, but this movie didn't feel slow in unfolding, but rather hesitant in unfolding. Here's a bit of story, but now we're going to pull back and meander a bit; now here's another bit of story, but now we're going to pull back again; and still yet again. The movie doesn't feel comfortable in its own skin for something close to half an hour, and maybe more, when all the kids finally go to Narnia.

And then -- well, I won't summarize the whole thing here. As always, the best way to find out what happens in a movie is to see the movie, which I recommend, anyway.

For all the wonderments of the Lord of the Rings movies (and really, I don't think I'm likely to see that much wonderment on the movie screen at once again in my lifetime), one thing that niggled at me in each film was that once in a while Middle Earth felt too small. Not always, mind you; for the most part, Peter Jackson was pretty good about suggesting the vastness of Middle Earth. But once in a while he frankly dropped the ball in that regard, making everything seem like it was within an easy day's ride of everything else. (And to be bluntly honest, this same flaw afflicts the Star Wars movies, when we really consider the timelines and events involved therein.) Just to give one example, one scene in The Two Towers that always bugs me has Captain Faramir's second-in-command (I can't remember his name) bringing him a map and briefing him on everything that's going on, even as it's happening: "Our scouts report that Theoden is making for Helm's Deep, but Saruman is about to attack him there." And I'm wondering, absent a palantir or the services of the Great Eagles or Shadowfax, how on Earth did that scout get that information from Helm's Deep to Ithilien that fast? And one thing for which I really value the Extended Edition of The Return of the King is that the film's theatrical cut makes it seem as though Mount Doom is about a mile and a half from Cirith Ungol.

This problem, though, really prevails in Narnia, which frankly feels about as large as Walt Disney World and, until the film's final act, seems to be populated by about a dozen beings of various sort. A few attempts are made to convey scale, but these mostly involve throwaway shots of wide vistas that are surmounted in mere minutes. (And I have to cry foul, to a certain extent, on the very first scenes set in Narnia: that winter-shrouded forest just screams out "forest set on a soundstage with fake snow"). And in that third act, when we finally meet the cast of hundreds that form the armies of Aslan and the White Queen, I'm wondering, "Where did all these folks come from?" And even that final battle lacks a sense of major scale.

And then there's the Christian allegory element of the story.

I have no problem with any of this, per se, except that it all feels fairly perfunctory. Maybe it worked better in the book, and when I read it I'll be able to report back on this, but in the film, I felt as though Aslan's Christ-like nature just came out of nowhere (even though I knew it was coming). I suspect that the filmmakers had to leave some backstory out, which is why the slaying of Aslan doesn't work quite so well in the movie: all of a sudden, here's the Queen and Aslan talking about "the deep magic" and whatnot. Aslan's act of self-sacrifice is explained, but the rationale for why there has to be a sacrifice at all is given the tiniest lip-service. I got the feeling that something of Lewis's mythological underpinning to Narnia got omitted from the film, perhaps for reasons of running time. For all the ink that was spilled around the time of the film's theatrical release about its Christian allegory content, upon seeing the movie last night I was left wanting more of that, not less. What's there just doesn't feel like enough, and I'm not saying that as a Christian. I'm saying that as a lover of story who felt that a deeper aspect of this particular story was given short shrift. I don't care if your tale springs from a Christian, or Jewish, or Vedic, or Icelandic skaldic wellspring, but if it does, don't do it halfway.

Visually, I found the film a mixed bag of influences. The talking animals and various makeup effects all worked extremely well, and that was easily the best part of the whole production. And frankly, that would easily have been the easiest part of a movie like this to get wrong (and if you don't believe me, go look at this, swallowing any liquids you may be ingesting before you do). I loved the chemistry between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and the White Queen's look is pitch perfect -- especially at the end, when she strikes one of the most fearsome poses I've ever seen in a movie villain. (Seriously, that pose of hers as she drives her chariot into battle might be iconic.) I liked how the filmmakers, seeing that Lewis's world involves less sophisticated worldbuilding than Tolkien's, mostly opt for a color scheme of bold primary colors. I did think that Aslan, although perfectly animated, should have been physically larger. And frankly, I loved the Minotaur.

I do question the making of the English countryside to be this idyllic, warm, sunny place. (Maybe Lewis had it this way in the book, though.) And I couldn't help but watch the brief scenes of the train going from London to the English countryside and wonder if the filmmakers realized that their train looks exactly like the Hogwarts Express. I'm almost certain this was a cinematic in-joke.

What else to say about the film? I thought the film was cast very well: the four kids were all excellent, and the film's numerous voice actors were great. The music score was just OK, though. Film music fans keep telling me that Harry Gregson-Williams is a talent to reckon with and the best thing to come out of Hans Zimmer's "Media Ventures" stable of cookie-cutter composers, but I'm just not hearing it. Gregson-Williams's effort for Narnia is your standard Big Epic Sword Fantasy kind of a score, but its level of sophistication is nowhere near to what Howard Shore accomplished for The Lord of the Rings -- just a couple of big themes that pound out in the big scenes, none of which are especially memorable. And the damn pop songs on the End Credits were especially grating. The music is just generic, which is disappointing but hardly unexpected these days. This would have been a perfect film for a James Newton Howard or a Gabriel Yared. (If you doubt me on Yared, track down his rejected score for Troy. That guy's got some epic-scoring chops.)

Narnia, despite my misgivings noted above, is a good movie, and further evidence that we're experiencing some kind of high point in fantasy these days. Fantasy readers are always complaining about the state of the genre, but we've come a long way from twenty years ago when all the books were Tolkien clones and the rare fantasy movie was some kind of crap like Legend or Krull. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe may not have been perfect -- but I'm still going to be there when Prince Caspian opens.

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