Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tubs & tortoise-shells!

I finally got around to watching Prince Caspian. I haven’t read the book since I was a kid, so I can’t offer any invidious comparisons between the book and the movie.

In one respect, the second installment of the film series is an improvement over the first. The world of Narnia in The Lion, The Witch, & the Wardrobe seemed to be rather cramped. As if it was all filmed on a sound studio. A low budget affair.

By contrast, the cinematic world of Prince Caspian is far more expansive. Epic, if you will. And the FX is well done.

It’s a good-looking film. And that’s important, since the visual aspect is a dominant feature of the cinematic genre.

But that’s about the best thing I can say for Prince Caspian. Other than that, I find it unsatisfactory at various levels.

From a military standpoint, it’s unclear what vital role humans perform in this movie. When it comes to hand-to-hand combat with Conquistadors, surely a centaur or minotaur is more formidable than a teenage character. So why do the Narnians really need Prince Caspian or the Penvensie kids to lead them into battle?

And as the ill-fated attack on Miraz’s castle illustrates, it’s not as if Peter or Prince Caspian are tactical geniuses. I could also do without Susan as the ubiquitous, Hollywood superheroine.

The only reason seems to be that this is a coming-of-age story. It’s a learning and maturing experience for the teenage characters.

And no doubt Narnia would be an interesting place to come of age. But in that case, the teenage characters are there, not because they are needed in Narnia, but because they need Narnia.

And that’s a rather expensive lesson for the Narnians to pay. The Narnians bear the brunt of this exercise.

Which brings me to another issue: the movie raises the problem of evil without solving it. Why, indeed, does Aslan take such a hands-off approach?

Another problem is the target audience for this film. The books were written for children. But, of course, a coming-of-age story is primarily appealing moviegoers who are coming of age. Not children, but teenagers—or older adults who look back wistfully on their own rites of passage.

Yet when you try to combine a children’s story with a coming-of-age story, this creates a jarring incongruity in the tone. How can we take the “adult” aspects of the story seriously when we see an army composed of talking mice and badgers and dwarves and dancing trees?

This is comical, and it’s meant to be comical, but comical according to a child’s sense of humor.

On a related note, the humorous dialogue is very hip and modern. It reflects the attitude of a different generation than the world of C. S. Lewis.

I don’t object to this on its own level, but a major point of reading classic literature is to immerse yourself in sensibilities of a very different time and place and culture than your own. I don’t need movie adaptations that update the material—as if I couldn’t possibly relate to anything that wasn’t written last week.

I also don’t need a lot of comic relief, as if my attention span is so limited that I can’t allow a dramatic arc to unfold naturally, at its own pace.

Or take the character of Reepicheep. Okay, that’s appealing to a little kid. But what viewpoint am I, as a grown-up, supposed to assume when I see that character?

I get the comic effect: the paradox of a militant mouse. But the sight-gag wears thin.

Since a mouse, even a talking mouse with a sword, is no match for a Conquistador, how am I supposed to react to his military prowess?

In addition, the fawns and centaurs and minotaurs remind me of something out of The Island of Dr. Moreau. There’s something diabolical about these hybrid creatures from Greek mythology. It’s not something you can baptize and add to the Christian furniture.

Another thing: although the landscape is often quite beautiful, it’s beautiful in a very ordinary and earthly way. At the geographical level, there’s nothing very fantastic about this fantasy world.

It’s far less fantastic than Perelandra or Malacandra. In that respect it lacks the imaginative creativity that we encounter in many SF movies and TV series. It’s a bit of a let down.

Then there’s the treatment of Peter. He’s portrayed as reckless and impetuous because he lacks Lucy’s faith. But within the confines of the narrative, I don’t see that his actions are inherently wrong. Aslan didn’t tell him to wait until Aslan gave him advice or Aslan personally intervened. Indeed, Aslan is very distant and detached.

So why shouldn’t Peter take the initiative? On the face of it, he and his siblings were brought back to Narnia to liberate Narnia from the Telmarines. And the clock is ticking.

Also, would Peter really be tempted by the offer of the White Witch? Surely he knows her character. That she would be a treacherous ally. That she would use him to regain the throne for herself.

And why should Lucy have to go riding off into the woods to fetch Aslan? What’s he waiting for? Why does he need her to come to him? Why can’t he take the initiative?

Indeed, the character of Aslan is a central problem. For Lewis, he represents Christ. But in this movie, I’m struck by how un-Christlike he is. In what respect does he correspond, even symbolically, to the Christ of the Gospels?

He’s more like Yoda in a lion suit. A big stuffed animal with a fund of fortune-cookie platitudes. Just pull the string.

The surviving Telmarines also get off pretty light. After killing all those innocent Narnians, they are then allowed to go back to where they came from. All is forgiven.

Where’s the justice? Seems like cheap grace to me.

Don’t some of them deserved to be punished for their crimes?

The film also ends with a dreadful pop song. Over the last few years I’ve noticed that this has become a Hollywood convention. When there’s a “significant” moment in a film or TV show, like the death of a beloved character, the audience is treated to a pop song accompaniment.

This has come to take the place of prayer, a sermon, or hymn. In the past, we would turn to religion, to the church, to the Bible—for solace, and for the final word.

The Bible supplied the moral framework. The Bible supplied the interpretation of the event. Its ultimate significance in the grand scheme of things.

But now, directors and screenwriters and TV producers substitute a pop song as the moral makeweight and commentary on events. Not only does this tell you what kind of music they like, but where they look for inspiration. How they make an event “meaningful.”

They don’t turn to the Psalms or the Gospels. Or even a good hymn. They don’t go to church. Instead, the pop song is the eulogy. The pop vocalist is their priest or pastor.


  1. When I walked out of this movie, I found myself wishing I could talk to an English Lit professor and find out what specifically Christian ideas I was supposed to get from the allegory. It ain't obvious, is what I'm sayin'.

  2. "Yoda in a lion suit..."

    I don't know man. That sounds pretty awesome!!!

    Thanks for the review, Steve.