Its title a verbal freight train, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe pulls into the ‘plexes bearing a heavy burden of dreams. You’re not buying a ticket to Narnia but investing in the future of a prospective franchise.
To revive its fortunes, Walt Disney Enterprises has hired its foremost tormenter—Shrek director Andrew Adamson—to engineer a showy ideological volte-face. More than once attacked by religious fundamentalists for flagrant Mouse-worship and sinful secular humanism, Disney has hitched its wagon to the locomotive of C.S. Lewis’s seven-volume Christian allegory. The announced $180 million tab has been partially underwritten by multi-billionaire media mogul Philip Anschutz, big-time Bush supporter and public proponent of socially conservative entertainment.
Anschutz can break out the near beer (so long as it’s Coors). Robust, engrossing, and surprisingly restrained in saving most of its effects for the grand finale, the first Chronicles of Narnia installment eschews Harry Potter’s satanic subtext and The Lord of the Rings‘ Wagnerian cosmology. It may be as close to adult-friendly kid fare as Hollywood will ever get—although that has more to do with narrative than family values. (Having read both Tolkien and Lewis aloud at bedtime, I can attest to the latter’s superiority as a storyteller.)
Just how Christian is it? Visiting the land of Narnia as a young heathen, I found Lewis’s theology an only mildly obtrusive part of the landscape. Even for me, it was easy to see that Aslan was a furry, if fearsome, Jesus—although being a child myself, I missed the theological significance of little Lucy’s faith. (Or maybe not: I was sufficiently smitten to write Lewis my first and only fan letter.) For kids weaned on Shrek, however, the big problem may be less the toned-down violence than the absence of pop culture references. One has to supply one’s own anachronisms. Mr. Tumnus the faun has been preempted by Matthew Barney’s goat-boy, while the password “Aslan is on the move” seems inspired by the presidential mantra that “freedom is on the march.”
The Christianity may be too New Age to make good 700 Club fodder. On the other hand, The Lion et al. could serve as a powerful teaching story: the gospel according to Tumnus. Certainly, the Boschian “crucifixion” that Aslan suffers has to be friendlier than Mel Gibson’s Jew-baiting sadomasochist extravaganza. Anyway, for all the Lion‘s blatant allegory, the tale’s engagingly child-centered family dynamics will most likely be understood as a cosmic divorce settlement pitting Aslan’s cuddly dad against the White Witch’s castrating mommy.
We know who we “love,” but so far as acting goes, there’s no comparison between the computer-spawned lion king, whose chewy lines are masticated by Liam Neeson, and Tilda Swinton’s Method ice queen. Swinton must have a sense memory of hypothermia. Projecting cold amusement, chilly exasperation, and arctic fury as the situation requires, coolly acting against a cast of kids, fuzzy puppets, and nonexistent CGI hobgoblins, Swinton is, in Narnia-speak, a true Daughter of Eve—she may be scary but her performance is a triumph of the human.