Monday, December 12, 2005

Not a Tame Lion

Warning - picked nits, spoilers and inevitable comparisons follow. Bottom line - go see the movie!

I watched the Narnia movie this weekend with my older three kids, ages 10, 7, and 6. They've seen the Star Wars, Potter, and LOTR epics (the younger two have not seen SW3 and no one has seen HP4, and we FF'd through the scary parts of LOTR), and the CGI-heavy "Sky Captain." So this little audience was very well-acquainted with fantasy-adventure films and computer-generated special effects.

We're also familiar with the story. A year or two ago we read through the Narnia Chronicles for bedtime storytime, and the kids watched the BBC production of LWW last year or thereabouts. And as a Christian family, we're also quite familiar with the back-story, as it were.

Going in I was concerned a bit about the previews, having seen what came up on the big screen prior to SW3. I was pleasantly surprised that the theater managers had chosen "The Twenty" and previews that were targeted to the family demographic. They certainly piqued our interest. Maybe H'wood has finally figured out that "values voters" will spend money at the theater, too.

The opening scenes of The Blitz were pretty well done. I'm an airplane buff, and the He-111 interiors looked believable. When Edmund runs back to get the picture of his dad to take into the shelter, that could have set up some good emotional context for later, but as it turned out it didn't have a payoff. It was just a set-piece to show that Edmund doesn't do as he's told, and that kind of fell flat to me.

The following scene where the children are loaded onto trains to escape the war was very moving. It had as much impact as the scene in LOTR2 where the Rohan village mother packes her children onto a horse to escape the approaching orc horde.

At the country manor, Mrs. Macreedy seemed to be channeling HP's Professor McGonagal - I couldn't escape the comparison. The child actors played well at being bored kids, though the family dynamic seemed to be a bit lacking. They felt more like cousins than siblings. The Professor seemed a bit cartoonish as well, at least in appearance.

And then Lucy (finally!) finds the Wardrobe. That transition was very nicely done.

When Lucy goes off with the very charming Mr. Tumnus, I wanted to scream at her - "Don't you KNOW about going off with strangers!?!?!?!" I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written long before Level Three offenders and Amber Alerts became common features of a parent's landscape. Still, when the faun began to weep about "what he's going to do" I got a serious case of the creeps.

Every reviewer seems to rave about Lucy, and I agree - she positively lights up the screen. She doesn't do "sad" terribly well - I know what a heartbroken six-year-old girl looks like - but apart from that she did a wonderful job.

The older children's treatment of Lucy when she returned with her fantastic tale was utterly believable. Edmund then follows Lucy back into the wardrobe and meets Jadis, the White Witch. She seems a bit like a cartoon character, but she positively exudes evil, much as the Satan character in "The Passion." Edmund's betrayal of Lucy on his return to "the real world" further cements our opinion of him.

The filmmakers then take a bit of license to get all four children into the wardrobe, and the adventure can finally really begin. I've walked in the snow in inadequate footware, and I wondered why the children - especially the younger ones - weren't complaining more. But hey, this is fantasy.

The talking animals weren't jarring in the least. We're now well-accustomed to treating 100%-CGI characters as real, and the children didn't break the spell. I heard one patron behind me say, "English beavers?" On reflection, he had a point - they're native to North America. The dialog between Mr. And Mrs. Beaver was well-done. They really felt like a married couple.

Fast-forward to the encounter with Father Christmas. This felt flat to me - too much deus ex machina. I'll need to review the book to see how the children get their weapons, but it felt contrived. Still, Lucy's pointed comment to her siblings after he departs made it entirely worthwhile.

The camp of the Narnian army had a magical-yet-believable feel to it. Certainly more sanitized than the Rhohirrim encampment outside the Dimmul, but not totally contrived. The armor of the fauns and centaurs - especially the centaurs! - looked right. Clearly the LWW armorers took the same care as those on LOTR.

Aslan's facial expressions were completely believable. I felt that Liam Neeson's voice lacked a bit of rumbly resonance - comparisons to James Earl Jones' Musafa are unavoidable. Still, there's a nice contrast between the power of a full-grown lion and the wise and gentle voice of Qui-Gon. When Jadis asks him after their conference how she can be sure he'll keep his promise, the Lion's reaction is perfect.

About Aslan's sacrifice I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said. The evil and wickedness of Jadis' minions is palpable. The sadness and resignation in the Lion's eyes, real. Oddly, it's the humans - Lucy and Susan, who seem to lack emotion. They should show real shock, horror, and sadness. They don't. If there's a real flat spot in the film, that's it.

But as we all know, death has no power over Aslan, as it had no power over Christ. The innocent sacrifice who willingly gives his life in the place of the guilty both fulfills the Deep Magic and breaks the stone table forever. Christian audiences get this. I wonder how non-Christians will see it.

The battle scenes were fantastic, reminiscent of LOTR's battle of Pellinore Fields. This is hardly surprising, since Weta Workshop did the CG work. The special effects are completely transparent - one simply believes that centaurs and minotaurs are battling hand-to-hand. Again, some obvious thought was given to the question, "how does this culture - this species - fight?"

We know the rest of the story - Aslan and the revived victims of the White Witch arrive to turn the tide of battle, Jadis is vanquished, and the childen are enthoned at Cair Paravel. Many years later, they stumble back into and through the wardrobe into the spare room, just as the Professor enters.

The exchange that follows is my favorite from the whole film.

So, finally, my overall impressions. As a fantasy film on its own merits, A-. Narnia certainly feels as real as Hogwarts or Middle-Earth, and visuals sell the story and the characters. Unfortunately, some of the storytelling and acting falls short of perfection, and the music was unmemorable.

As a film adaptation of C.S. Lewis's classic, I give it a solid A. The filmmakers took some liberties, but you have to do that in bringing any story to the screen.

As an entertaining family film, it earns an A+. My kids loved it, pronounced it "the best movie ever." Even my jaded 10-year-old declared that it was better than LOTR or even - gasp! - Star Wars III.

We'll be seeing it again, and I don't mean waiting for the DVD.


JCB said...

Fast-forward to the encounter with Father Christmas. This felt flat to me - too much deus ex machina. I'll need to review the book to see how the children get their weapons, but it felt contrived. Still, Lucy's pointed comment to her siblings after he departs made it entirely worthwhile.

You know how much I hate argument from authority? Well I'm going to do it anyway:

One of J.R.R. Tolkien's most vehement objections to this book was the inclusion of Father Christmas. Not because of the Christian element (although he did feel the story was too allegorical), but because it was simply wrong aesthetically. It interrupts the narrative, it ruins the flow (and even magic) of the story.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have read the book a number of times, and the problem you point out is there in the originally published text.

Of course, one might object that Aslan himself is too deus ex machina, that once he shows up the outcome is never in doubt. I'm not sure about that objection, honestly, because Lewis tries very hard to leave everything in the hands of the Pevensie children (but of course even putting aside Aslan's infallibility, the victory is prophecied).

Corrie said...

Tolkein was not fond of allegories, period. I don;t think he liked "Pilgrim's Progress" or "Gulliver's Travels" But as allegories go, LWW is pretty well done.

"Of course, one might object that Aslan himself is too deus ex machina, that once he shows up the outcome is never in doubt."

Yeah, I hear ya. The Bible has that same problem. :-p