December 12, 2005

Nail the Wardrobe Shut, Lucy. For Jack's sake.

I hate to say it, but the first Narnia movie, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), was just as dreadful as the cartoon adaptation of the same book. Actually, I think the live action film was worse.

Please do not read further if you want to keep the movie an unknown for yourself. Henceforth, I will discuss my opinion and thoughts as if you have seen the movie or don't plan to.

Firstly, just so you know my bias, I grew up reading these books. And I read them over and over and over and over. And I love them dearly. The books are where I met this land of Narnia, and the books are my standard, today. This review will be for those who believe the books—that is the author's actual work—to be the Gold Standard for the tale of Narnia.

Secondly, I wanted to love this movie. I hoped to. I got on a train and rode for 45 minutes into the city, and then walked a bit because I was betting on liking it (although fearing I would not). Sure, I did view it with high expectations, but there could have been no other way, nor should there have been. We do not lower our expectations for neophyte directors making Classic fables into film. They rise to meet our understanding and reverence for the piece of art they approach. That is how I see it.

Thirdly, I am not a religious person (don't belong to a religion), but I don't care that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a Christian allegory. I know Lewis' best friend (another Christian) JRR Tolkien didn't like the Chronicles of Narnia because he felt they were sententious and trapped in their allegorical structure, constraining and sacrificing their Story potential—but I don't care about that. Even moving inside their pre-ordained shapes, when we go to the pieces that could be construed as Christian allegory, I think they move well, and echo timelessly.

And as far as the fight out there about whether this movie is being used as a vehicle for the Christian message, I don't care about that. There are plenty of places I do not think organized religion should go, but this book was a beautiful and magical experience to me. And so is the story of Christ, his sacrifice, and his crucifixion. It's tragic, epic, grand, beautiful, horrible! Amazing story, as far as stories go. Why would I mind such a telling? You have to understand the events in a writer's life before you judge his work, I would submit. And "Jack" Lewis was going through some very heavy stuff when he penned the invitation to this land. Death, insanity, loneliness around him. Family falling apart. We look to powers other than our own will and mind during these dark times. And what his search for meaning bred for the world provided a wonderful journey for me, so I don't mind that. It's not like he was knocking on my door and stuffing pamphlets in my hand. As long as Adamson did not inject extraneous scenes or inflection that would add something "religious" to the film that did not exist in the book, I am happy with the books as they are.

After all, I wasn't aware of the metaphors when I read the book as a child. The books worked beautifully. I did not grow up to be a Christian, so the danger of infection seems to be low. I mean, perhaps I was a bit annoyed for a moment when I got older and realized what an obvious amalgam of allegories one can easily read from so much of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe...but that did not affect my initial reading of the book. After all, if C.S. Lewis was inspired by his life and the events in his life, who am I to protest? His fears and hopes for life, what with the war raging, and the wars throughout the books; his need to find magic and mystery and wonder just behind some hanging coats, or in a shallow pool of water: it all added up to a fantastic and unique journey that I feel anyone can take, athiest, agnostic, or religion-user.

So! Why was I bored silly at the movie?

Because this movie took so much that was magical about the books and efficiently destroyed or neutralized it.

In turns I was baffled, annoyed, and disappointed. Boy, was I disappointed. Although I should have known, and I did voice my fears when I found out it was a Disney/Walden film. Disney you know about, do a little research and find out who owns Walden. You'll see why I was worried. But again, it was not the religious elements that were a problem at all!

No, the religious allegory did not overwhelm. In fact, I think Andrew Adamson (dir) and crew completely missed the grand and terrible and ancient and magical ("Christlike?") vibe of Aslan. The kingly and majestic nature of the archetype was reduced to what almost felt like a supporting character, a spotlight for everyone's favorite and newest CGI monster: ASLAN the almost-real lion. This was a totally different animal than the figure in the book.

In the film, there was hardly any discernable buzz rippling around the land; oft- and joyfully-repeated exclamations of "Aslan is on the move!" The four children didn't hear it from the many animals they would meet—like when you travel to Live Aid in the middle of the night with a vanful of people and find other travelers at a gas station in New Jersey headed to the same place. The air and the land were not alive with the change, with the fall of Jadis' power, with the coming of a great King who had been "gone a long time." There was one time the beaver said it, but they glossed right over it. We ended up, essentially, with no suspense built up for his arrival. OH, and lest I forget, while I'm talking about getting Aslan right or terribly wrong, let me offer two words: Liam Neeson? Seriously? Liam Neeson as Aslan? That's what made sense to you? Um....personally, he felt perfect to me as Darkman. Boy, did Sam Raimi use him well in that role. But Aslan? This is exactly why Disney can never do these movies right. They have to have a Name to throw up there on the screen, but really, Aslan's voice should remind us of nobody but Aslan.

Going on with how Disney did their part to De-lionize the Great Lion. Okay, well, the White Witch was completely missing the "shaking in the boots" reaction to Aslan. She strode into his tent like she was proud and fierce, tossing the tent flaps behind her as if she could see the cameras fixed on her gait. That is not how it happened in the book, where Aslan had to reassure the terrified queen that he would not hurt her during their parley. Another dimunition of Aslan's might and noteriety, which adds up (along with the scenes of him cut from the film) felt as a lack of emotional investment in the cat (although I did do a lot of staring at the CGI cat's eyes thinking wow...he's pretttttty. Lookit all the millions of CGI "hairs" blowing in the wind! Yeah. Not quite the same awe that the character inspired in me all those years ago....)

I'm skipping around here. I got sucked into talking about the religious allegories first, because that is such an item of discussion among the news sources of the day. But can I back up a minute to the ten minutes of Disney-fied Schmaltz at the opening of the film? I mean what was all this? Did we really need a huge scene of the Nazis bombing London? And this sudden addition to the books of Edmund risking his life for a photo of Daddy? What the hell? Yes, I understand the motivation to establish Peter and Edmund's character's stances with each other, but again: What the hell? Unnecessary, and all the hand-wringing music made me sick. The book works fine with a cursory mention of their motivation to flee London, and that is good enough. The big problem with making a huge deal of their escaping such a horrific war is that it undermines the glory and triumph and glee the director takes in painting the violence and war inside Narnia! I mean...which is it? Do we love war, or don't we?

Many little changes were made that weren't needed. In essence, I feel a lot of the "magical" quality of the book and the land of Narnia were diluted in this way.

For instance, The White Witch did not turn herself into a rock and her dwarf a stump, before almost cutting Edmund's throat. In fact, that didn't even happen in the film. Instead, she had rasta dreads, dirty blonde hair, and struck martial arts sword-kata poses like she was being photographed for the soon-to-be-released video game of THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE®.

The director removed beautiful storytelling pieces and essential character-building, narrative-sketching dialogue. Gone is the length of the trek needed to reach the different parts of Narnia. Gone is the breakfast party where the animals are so intoxicated with Aslan's proximity that they boast of it to the Winter Witch and are turned to stone. Gone is Edmund's dragging of the sleigh. Gone is the pacing that resonates more with a quest story, and the unfolding of a prophesied event, and in its place is this annoying, predictable pace of the ubiquitous commercially-successful adventure movie. Adamson replaced these many small magical moments of symbol or dialogue with cheesy action sequences designed to introduce filmic tension and remind us of LOTR, and which ultimately reduced this mythical Tale to the status of a modern-day action/adventure flick. And that's a huge problem. This story needed to feel so far beyond a typical movie. And it did not.

The camera work was not inventive, it was not even stylized. It was average. No real thought went into translating the world visually, as far as I could see (and just so it is known, I did study cinematography at NYU's film school, took the DP track and shot independent films after school so I'm not just a couch-cameraman, here). I would paint with a little more City of Lost Children once they stepped through the wardrobe, but now you see I'm talking about a whole different feel. Whole different. And perhaps that kind of suggestion isn't fair in a critique of the choices that were made. So I can go on in that vein.

Location. The crew traveled to New Zealand to shoot, to try and soak up some of that LOTR aura, but I didn't even notice. When they were in Narnia for the first time, I didn't feel as if it were an enchanted Winter. I felt as if they were upstate New York with snow machines. It all looked cakey, bakery, dry and powdery. Maybe they can't do anything about that. I'm just telling you how it felt to me. And I say if you can't pull it off in a film, it's not time to do it yet. If you can't make the viewers forget they are watching a film, then you aren't the man to make it.

When lucy was gripping the lamppost, early on. The fingerprints on the lamppost, and the jumps in continuity that were evident from the shifting pattern seen from medium shot to close-up was distracting. Don't do that. Any script supervisor knows to take polaroids to match up from scene, what was with the mismatch! I know your budget allowed for enough crew and Polaroid film! Don't do that when there is only one handprint of fingerprints on black metal next to the only character's face in the center of the screen in the middle of a snowy land!!! You are begging us to remember that we are watching a FILM and not experiencing a mystical tale, that we are not, in fact, being transported anywhere, but are stuck in a dark theater watching sloppy filmmaking.

I mean, I'm being picky, there. But some would say I am not. After all, this is not "Me, Myself and Irene." It's The Chronicles of Narnia. I held LOTR to the same standard, and you know what? They surprised me. They blew my mind. But then again, Peter Jackson (the director of LOTR) actually had experiencing directing live action films. Yes, that's right. Adamson, the director for LWW (Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe) never, ever, ever directed humans in live action before this film. Granted, he did the jokey and ultra-fun/littered with pop references/CGI masterpiece Shrek (and its sequel), but no live action. Right away, bad move. Not for this movie.

What else? Need I go on? Digory the professor was stripped to a few pithy lines; tumnus should have looked darker, maybe. Certainly not blonde and cute surfer-fawn; Disney Tumnus. (Perhaps I am being pickier now).

Wolf fight on the river? Say wha? Narrow escape in the Beaver's damn say wha? No meeting up and turning to stone the breakfast party while pulling sleigh, or saying "If one of you mentions his name again, you're dead?" No perfect metaphor of Jadis' power failing by her sleigh getting stuck? No gradual melting of Winter (and mirrored gradual dawning of awareness in the creatures of the land that the long rule of Evil is ending), but instead a digital-quick, CGI rush of green ripping through the frame? And how odd does it feel that Peter gets made some big leader of the Army without any explanation, or transfer of the mantle of power? In the book, Aslan holds back the others when they charge and says "let the prince earn his spurs," and we don't even get that much in the film. We are asked to rely on our knowledge of the books, or take for granted that it makes sense that such a greenie would be High King, and leading an entire army in the most crucial war of over 100 years.

And then the war, again. How odd it feels to be glorifying the battle scenes when it is children leading the charge; children who were running from the Nazis into the Professor's house, children being watched by children in theaters in country that is now in the midst of a war? I can't help think to myself shouldn't we be more delicate of such tactics? And I'm not talking about changing the book. After all, in the book, the war was not made such a brilliant, spectacular central issue of reverence. In the movie, it feels like someone has been watching the Peter Jackson films too many times, or dreaming of grand battles.

Here it is. The difference in the book is that there is so much gathering together of different types of animals, whispering of Aslan's name, reveling in his image and getting "all trembly" so that humans and animals can no longer even look at his face, that the oncoming battle does not feel like some bloody war that young children have been thrust into leading a charge in which lances are lifted to spear the oncoming enemy (as shown in the film). It feels like the burgeoning rise of the True King, whomever that may be. (I refuse to be turned off by any Christ metaphor. Because if Christ were to arrive in life, as he was portrayed in his better moments; if a true Prophet and teacher came to this Earth, perhaps it would feel like that, and perhaps your entire neighborhood and myself would move across the land in his encampment, who can say. So seeing a metaphor to Christ in that writing does not negate it's beauty and might, as a story. And it is probably because I am not religious that I can stand back and look at the Christ story as as story. If you are tempted to think I am pro-organized religion and all that entails, you could easily find writing of mine that would quickly prove that false.) With such a righteous and kind and loving philosophy behind the animals of Narnia, the conflict that approaches feels like a joyful revolution of the People, heralding proper rule back to an oppressed land. Not a giant war to be met on a battlefield with armor and sword. I guess the distinction may simply be a matter of angle, of tone, of intimacy that is lost in the film in favor of (I feel), larger motions for larger crowds; for action sequences and bland formula.

Finally, I realized why I didn't feel at all what the books made me feel, while watching the film.

Throughout the entire series of the Narnia books, we are always protected, taught, and guided through the tale by the warm, personal, and wise voice of Lewis' narrator. After all, Lewis began the books with the tone of instructing his niece. That was his original intent, and you can feel it in the narration. Lucy is being taught to escape the terrible reality of World War II, but being given a way to deal with it in a metaphorical sense. (Moments come to mind such as when Susan is given the weapons for war but told to use them only for self-defense, because war gets uglier when women are involved. Again, not in the film version). Lucy is even being taught how to deal with her elder brother's treachery and hurtful tactics. And this tone is present, parenthetically and otherwise, from book one to book seven.

Now normally I am not for a voiceover. They are often used to instruct the viewer in a very sophomoric, redundant fashion, or they are tacked on at the end because the producers or production companies are afraid the great unwashed masses won't understand the finer points of the film. So they often feel just as you'd expect. Like you are being spoonfed. But I think a voiceover in the film translation of all this book conveyed would be essential. Not a voiceover, rather. A narrator. Lewis' unseen narrator, as we are given in the books.

For in the book, this narrator is not window dressing. His tone is essential to the entire telling of the tale. In the book, when Lucy is alone, we feel calm and cloistered; it is her and the reader, and it is Lewis' narrator who insures this intimacy. When she is frustrated by Edmund's sudden traitorous denial of Narnia's existence, we are at least comforted by the fact that Edmund is wrong (for the narrator is on our shoulder), and Lucy is not utterly alone. Again, it feels like the reader, the narrator, and Lucy. Edmund has defected into a cold land. But in the film, I feel there, too. Both Lucy and Edmund are distant to me, in moments I normally do not feel so separate.

I first noticed the lack of this voice in the Beaver's dam. Remember that voice? It was when Edmund slipped away. Because the narrator always let us in on the lowdown. "Now, the entire time they were discussing Aslan, Edmund began to feel queasy..." or something like that. That voice was important. It told us so much that I just don't think comes across in the film. That little reality of how Edmund was feeling and why he left to trudge to find the Ice Castle in the dark, snowy unknown land is replaced in the film by the beaver's talking, and then Edmund just suddenly gone. See? How is that translating the book's intent? Not even a shot of Edmund's fingers working stickily and nervously, or his face, feeling ill as they talk, nothing? I don't know. I don't want to say how they could make the film better than to start all over again. Or give it up. That's the second failed attempt at turning that book into a movie. Do they just not get it?

Lewis, who died in 1963, was "absolutely opposed" to a live-action version of "Narnia," according to an unpublished 1959 letter he wrote to a BBC producer. "Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare," he wrote in the letter, which was quoted on the BBC's Web site.

Maybe some stories are better as books. Imagine that? Could it be that the human imagination still outperforms technology in some areas? I don't know. But I would say so far, that definitely applies to The Chronicles of Narnia.

joaquín ramón herrera writes for children, adults, and other humans found elsewhere in the continuum of development. He is also an illustrator, musician, and surprise protagonist. If you have found his glasses, wallet, or keys, please contact him here.

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