So, due to the good graces of Dan "Hobbit" Lazarow, I got tickets to one of the premieres of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" at El Capitan in Hollywood last night. I arrived early and we had some dinner at the mall-like place across the street, right next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Even as I was leaving the parking lot though, two very friendly church-goers introduced themselves and asked me if I was there to see the movie. They gave me helpful directions, and were generally very amiable.
As I walked past El Capitan, (a truly magnificent Art Deco movie palace, by the way) I saw that it was decked out from stem to stern with Narnia regalia - icicles and snowdrifts, statues from the White Queen's palace, the whole big thing. When I walked under the marquee, it snowed on me. They had rigged the roof to drift snowflakes down. Real snow, too! I grinned, and a couple of the movie theatre employees, two black guys in fancy uniforms, lounging around the ticket booth, laughed happily at my surprise.
The line before the movie was huge. We actually lined up an hour early, and we were still stretched around the block. The tickets were given in a folder that said, "PASSPORT: Narnia" This I will treasure. Interestingly, the premiere was sponsored by a church called Mosaic . They did distribute some literature before the movie, but it was mostly about C.S. Lewis. It was tasteful and not over the top... and really, "Lion" is a Christian allegory, so making it a "teaching moment" would almost certainly not be against Lewis' wishes.
The inside of El Capitan is a marvel. There's not a square inch that isn't covered with some intricate bit of gingerbread filigree. The screen itself is recessed behind multiple layers of elaborate frames. Rising out of the stage on the proscenium is a massive organ, the likes of which any Phantom would gladly give the right half of his mask to have. An organist was pounding away in an almost gymnastic performance at holiday traditional songs - each one ending in a massive, basso profundo flourish to cue the audience to applaud. When he was finished, the organ disappeared down into the stage to much applause. The curtain over the screen descended, and the house lights went down. The curtains went up ... only reveal a scrim with the famous lampost of Narnia. A lightshow, consisting of... lights that dimmed and raised in a not-particularly-dramatic fashion followed. There were centaur statues flanking the stage, and a massive Aslan head that flashed dramatically over the stage. Finally, the music reached a crescendo and artificial snow makers blew confetti-snow all over the theatre.
At last, the feature started:
I've waited for this movie for a long time. I saw the BBC versions, which were basically screen-adapted, ultra-low budget theatrical productions. It had many of the charms that you might expect (awful British teeth, plummy English accents, overwrought over-acting, a deep, rumbling Aslan-voice) and lacked many that would have been desirable (believable talking animals, production values, action sequences that weren't painful and clumsy.)
The modern Disney adaptation, then, has all that stuff that the BBC version had, and all the stuff that one might have wanted - but with one glaring exception. Aslan. But, I will get back to that in a moment.
The movie starts with a totally unneccessary and out place World War II sequence of German pilots dropping bombs on London, and the Pevensie children hiding in a bomb shelter. They're packed off for the country forthwith - but as with the book, simply having the kids waiting by a railway-siding waiting to be picked up is sufficient. The preceding 15 minutes or so of the film could have been used elsewhere to flesh out stories that were glossed over, or simply made the film shorter. The director, Andrew Adamson's amateurishness clunks elsewhere, with far too many long, lingering reaction shots of wide-eyed wonder, especially by the youngest of the four kids, Lucy. (Georgie Henley) Henley is a fine actress, particularly for her age - but the director is standing behind her saying, "Look AMAZED. No.... MORE amazed, darling. Totally flat-footed. More!" Adamson's only previous screen credits are Shrek and Shrek2, which certainly explains why he's not quite sure what to do with human actors, and much more comfortable with the (extremely well) animated Talking Animals.
It's worth mentioning that the music is flat and uninspiring. This movie is already being compared to "Lord of the Rings", and one arena in which it simply does not compete is the score. "Narnia"'s music is composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, who also did Shrek2. Gregson-Williams has a long pedigree of cinematic scores, but this one is as dull as dishwater. I know Howard Shore is perhaps overworked, but ... he should have done this score, dammit. Today, after viewing the film, for the life of me I can't remember a single tune or theme, with the exception of a song by Frou Frou during the credits.
Aside from uninspring music, the casting of Aslan was a poor choice. Liam Neeson voices the lion/savior - and I couldn't help but think, "Yep, that's Liam Neeson" every time he opens his
Aslan aside though, I was completely charmed by the Talking Animals, even Maugrim, the White Queen's captain of secret police. He and his pack of wolves were truly scary - making visceral the reason why man fears wolves, which was previously just an ancestral holdover to me. Yeah, yeah - wolves. Just dogs with long snouts, right? Not so - the wolves are predators, and their brooding threat on the screen is very palpable, even during their comical exchanges with Rupert Everett as the tricksy Fox. I loved the wolves, and was amused to see that Maugrim was, apparently, an American. (Sim Evan-Jones credited with the voice.)
Tilda Swinton is worth singling as simply the perfect White Queen. Her wide, crazy-eyes (remarkably similar to someone I know...) are perfect for the roiling evil heart behind a lovely but brittle face. She strikes just the right note of sinuous seduction when she is trying to win hearts, and an even better note - no... symphony! as the malicious tyrant that she longs to be.
The climactic battle scene would have to rank in the top three of the greatest epic battles in my personal cinema pantheon - first going to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in "Return of the King", second to the defense of Zion in "Matrix: Revolutions" (say what you will about the movie, that scene was amazing!) The nobility of the Free Narnians is only exceeded by the flat-out cool factor of a massed charge of centaurs, rhinoceri, leopards, and the superbly brought to life griffins. The evil army is just as cool, in a truly vile and wretched way. The dread of their approach highlights the valor of the Free Narnians. My only complaint would be that the one-on-one battle between Peter and the White Queen goes on just a beat too long, and comes perilously close to being risible; he a young lad - though very dashing in his armor and helm, and she a spindly, though charismatic woman, who is not terribly convincing wielding two broadswords simultaneously. A shorter clash might have glossed over this quickly enough that the audience didn't notice.
I make this criticisms, but on the whole, truly loved the movie. The un-inspiring Aslan is the only thing that really left me cold, but in every other respect, it's a completely satisfying movie. Lewis' overt religious content is removed entirely from the film, (Father Christmas is never referred to by name, nor his gifts as "Christmas presents", and Aslan never says, "You know me here, so that when you return home, you may know me better there." to Lucy.) leaving it as a purely mythic adventure that can be seen as a Christian allegory or not, as the viewer chooses. As a teaching tool for religious educators, I'm sure that Aslan's sacrifice on behalf of the unsympathetic Edmund (Who sold his family out for truly vile candy ) will be a very immediate way to get kids to realize the significance of Christ's sacrifice for all people, no matter how wicked. (Or gay, or black, or Democrat, or female, or not-American...) But for parents, fans, or kids who just want a great, exciting, vivid adventure - the story is pure and stands on its own.
As a non-spoiler interesting factoid - El Capitan has a bunch of the original props on display in the theatre (along with commentary by Richard Taylor, who also did LoTR) and looking closely, I could see that Peter's sword says, "When Aslan shakes his mane, Narnia will have Spring again." I guess it rhymes if you're British...