Lion Jesus and four kids go to war... ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lion Jesus and four kids go to war...

(Boy, I haven't done one of these in a while. I'm a stickler for continuity; if I'm gonna watch a sequel, I always want to catch up on its predecessors first, and I always feel I ought to review them too while I'm at it. Only time, or lack thereof, keeps me from it. I still have a backlog of movies to watch and review - TRON: Legacy, thou must waiteth yet for me - but I think I can handle this one.)

I haven't read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia in ages - although when I did, I was the right age for them. I remember little about them though; I was a voracious reader as a kid, but most of the books I read back then are hazy memories now. They've always been known as classics of children's literature, but it was the 2005 big-budget Hollywood adaptation of the first book that brought them back into public notice as openly Christian allegories (which I never noticed). In fact, the first film was deliberately marketed towards Christian audiences in the States. But on the surface, they're family-friendly fantasy adventure films - of somewhat varying quality, really. I recall watching the first on Astro or something, and I did watch the second on DVD; so now that there's a new one out, I decided to quickly rewatch them again, just so I can have a unique overarching perspective on all three. I am nothing if not thorough.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
My rating:

I think, when I watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that time on Astro, I must've only watched the second half. That would be the good part, because I don't remember the parts that are so twee. I do remember that this first adaptation of C.S. Lewis' classic novels was hyped as being the next Lord of the Rings, a goal that it falls well short of. The main reason is that director Andrew Adamson is nowhere near as good as Peter Jackson, nor are his screenwriters anywhere as good as Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Dialogue is often on-the-nose and characterization is clumsy; we're reminded way too many times of Edmund's recalcitrance, and Susan and Peter are just dull. Their actors are also stiff and awkward around each other - only Georgie Henley's child-like wonder makes an impression.

Most of all, Adamson's handling of the material is very lightweight and kiddish, which brings us to another reason: Lewis' novel is not Lord of the Rings: Junior Edition, and Narnia is not Middle-Earth. There is actually a scene in which Father Christmas - Santa Claus! - appears, though he is never so named, as if the filmmakers were embarrassed about it themselves. J.R.R. Tolkien created a fully-realized world with an internally consistent mythology (and geography, and anthropology, etc. etc.); Lewis wrote whimsical children's fantasies. It's a big stretch to turn them into fantasy war epics, and neither Adamson nor Weta Workshop - who did such terrific work on Rings - were quite up to the task. They had nowhere near the amount of pre-production time that the Rings crew had, and thus the visual design of the world feels much less substantial. Narnia just never amounts to anything more than some picturesque locations, pretty CGI backdrops and neato costumes and props.

But then we get to that big climactic battle. Hey, what can I say, I likes me my medieval fantasy battles. Adamson's efforts to remake Lord of the Rings has some occasional successes, and one of them is this thrilling battle sequence. Tilda Swinton is deliciously evil and genuinely menacing as Jadis the White Witch, and it is during her scenes that the movie somewhat achieves the gravity and seriousness it's going for. Aslan is quite obviously an allegory for Jesus - specifically the Passion story - but I was more interested in the moral dilemma that Edmund goes through, which gives it some welcome depth for a kids' movie. I found it enjoyable, but just barely. It's cutesy and corny, but at least it never got as annoying as Chris Columbus' movies (him being TMBF's current reigning Least Favourite Director of Family-friendly Fantasy Films).

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
My rating:

If the first one was Andrew Adamson's fledgling attempt to rival the Lord of the Rings movies, Prince Caspian is where he gets it right - and he does it by going in a slightly different direction. The second Chronicles of Narnia is a clearly darker, grittier, more violent, and better film than the first, which now seems like a trial run for this one. It's another fantasy war epic, but it's closer to, say, Braveheart than Rings, what with its royal intrigue and treachery, and the fact that its antagonists are the human Telmarines instead of a sorcerous witch and an army of CGI beasties. The stakes feel higher, the action scenes more focused and exciting, the tension more real. The climactic battle scene is longer and better-staged, and there's even a gruelling swordfight between Peter and the villainous Lord Miraz. I likes me my swordfights.

The four Pevensies also fare much better. In the last film, they all grew to adulthood as reigning kings and queens of Narnia before returning to the real world, and I was on the lookout for signs of this here. I wasn't disappointed; both the writing and the performances took care to intimate that these are adults in children's bodies. They bicker much less amongst themselves now, and Edmund is no longer the designated pain in the ass; in fact, one of the things I enjoyed the most is how much more developed his character is. (I loved his snarky-cool parley with the Telmarines just before the battle.) Peter is kingly, Susan gets to be badass with her bow - in the previous one, I think she fired all of one shot - and Lucy is as sweet as ever; all their actors are far more comfortable in their roles than they were before. Amongst the new characters, I liked Trumpkin the grumpy dwarf best; diminutive actor Peter Dinklage will probably never get another action-hero role, but he was great here.

Although Caspian wasn't marketed as a Christian film the way Lion was, the allegory is still present; there's a running theme about how everyone's faith in Aslan is tested, despite his absence at a time of Narnia's need. (If I were a militant atheist, I'd take issue with its depiction of a deity who possesses the power to save his subjects, but would rather let them die until they prove themselves "worthy" - but naah, it didn't really come off that way.) On the whole, I liked it a good deal more than the first, even though its depiction of action-adventure and war still clashes somewhat with the kid-friendly tone. And this is also the one in which I came to really like the Pevensies and their performers, especially Henley and Skandar Keynes. It's a pity that this wasn't as financially successful as Lion; it simply didn't make much of an impression, either on the box-office or on the consciousness of moviegoers.


I hasten to add that I am not at all reviewing these films based on how faithful they are to the books. Like I said, I don't remember the books much, I don't hold them to any particular sacrosanctity, and the movie I liked best was the one that took the most liberties in its adaptation. Lewis may be rolling in his grave, but to me the Narnia movies are meant to be fun and exciting, and that's how I judge them. Which is how I'll be judging The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - or rather, judged, since I'm writing all this after I've already seen it. To which let us now get.


deck said...

What's this about Peter Dinklage not getting another action hero? He's been cast as Tyrion Lannister in the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, and in case you haven't read the series, Tyrion has some nice battle scenes in it.

Also, I'm totally a militant atheist and Prince Caspian did come off that way for me. It's a far more insidious message than the first one.

It's a pity that the film adaptation of The Golden Compass was so bad and failed so spectacularly that the series is effectively dead. It would have been interesting to see the outright atheist message of the His Dark Materials trilogy contrasted against the Narnian series. I'm not sure if they're even going to continue the Narnian one though. No more Pevensies after the Dawn Treader until the very last book.