February 22, 2005

SPREADING THE GOSPEL (via Judd Heartsill):

Disney's Next Hero: A Lion King of Kings (DAVID KEHR, 2/20/05, NY Times)

AS the residents of Narnia like to whisper, "Aslan is on the move." And so he is. But for the moment, Walt Disney Pictures has him on a very short leash.

Aslan, a talking lion with mystical powers, is the central figure in "The Chronicles of Narnia," the much-beloved seven-volume series of fantasy novels written by the British academic C. S. Lewis in the 1950's. By the year's end, if Disney marketers have their way, he will have joined Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio and Buzz Lightyear in a long line of characters that have periodically provided the Burbank giant with entertainment's most valuable asset, a new fantasy to trade on.

This next wave begins with the expected release on Dec. 9 of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which combines live action and computer-generated images in a movie adaptation of Lewis's epic. Sequels may follow. But films are only the spearhead of a corporate initiative that is likely to include a theme park presence, toys, clothing, video games and whatever other tchotchkes the infinitely resourceful Disney team can devise. Having been criticized for failing to cash in on the merchandising opportunities offered by 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," Disney is preparing for the kind of all-encompassing drive it hasn't mounted since 1994, when it turned "The Lion King" into a pop cultural event that still reverberates in its retail stores and on Broadway. [...]

[T]he pros at Disney are wrestling with a special challenge: how to sell a screen hero who was conceived as a forthright symbol of Jesus Christ, a redeemer who is tortured and killed in place of a young human sinner and who returns in a glorious resurrection that transforms the snowy landscape of Narnia into a verdant paradise.

That spirituality sets Aslan apart from most of the Disney pantheon and presents the company with a significant dilemma: whether to acknowledge the Christian symbolism and risk alienating a large part of the potential audience, or to play it down and possibly offend the many Christians who count among the books' fan base.

As Gilbert Meilander has said, one of the keys to Lewis' achievement is that: "[R]eaders actually get a rather heavy dose of serious religious reflection, though generally in quite alluring literary style." Disney doesn't need to lean on the Christianity, the story will take care of that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2005 6:49 PM

Aslan is actually much more a deity in the pagan mould, he takes the form of an animal (primal force of nature) and makes personal appearances to move the chess pieces around and mess with the mortal's heads.

I know Lewis was informed strongly by Christianity but the death and resurection bit was the only time Aslan acted like Jesus and I notice he bit the Queen's head off at the end.

Let's face it, pagan deities are more fun as literary characters because they don't have to act like responsible role-models.

Posted by: Amos at February 22, 2005 8:19 PM

Disney really hasn't had a major animation success on its own for over a decade, since the original Lion King came out. What favorable results among the critics and at the box officer there's been has been due to its association with Pixar, a connection that's poised to end next year unless some last-minute agreement has been worked out. Disney's own animation stories have either been politically correct message-laden tomes that preach more than entertain, or stories with material so trite the audience never cares for the characters. Their inability to write a script has all but killed off their 2-D animation department, so the execs right now are banking on the idea that kids and their parents really want to see everything in computer animation nowadays, which is why their previous movies failed.

You would think that by basing their first foray into computer animation on Lewis' already-popular work, and using stories that resonate with Christians, Disney would be pointed in the right direction. But then you look at animation historian Michael Barrier's website, and you get this:

Disney ... has entrusted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Andrew Adamson, a co-director of Shrek and Shrek 2 .... My question is this: C. S. Lewis's Narnia books are a Christian allegory, a touchy subject for any film, much less one coming out under the Disney label and mixing live action with computer animation. Why would you entrust such a film to the director of the Shrek films, both of them notable not just for their smartass sceenplays but also for clunky computer animation that makes stop motion look smooth and realistic?

The only possible answer, of course, is the two DreamWorks films' huge boxoffice success. I suspect that what we see here is yet another of the many conjunctions of cynicism, cluelessness, and huge amounts of money that make Hollywood a fascinating and unending train wreck.

There's another question that I find even more intriguing: Given his years at DreamWorks, will Adamson be able to resist the temptation to use at least one fart gag? "Aslan, you big old putty tat! Did you cut the cheese?"

If he's right, the movie at best will come out as C.S. Lewis meets "The Emporer's New Groove". But then Bob Clark, the director of "Porky's" did follow up that film by making "A Christmas Story," so anything's possible.

Posted by: John at February 23, 2005 12:01 AM

I'm less than optimistic about Disnified Narnia, but as John said: anything's possible. Ten years ago no one would have pegged Peter Jackson as the one who would do a fair job of finally bringing The Lord of the Rings to screen.

Posted by: Anthony Perez-Miller at February 23, 2005 12:13 AM

I thought Pirates was going to bomb, too. Stupid idea.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 23, 2005 12:26 AM

I thought Pirates was going to bomb, too. Stupid idea.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 23, 2005 12:26 AM

LOTR was crypto-Christian and yet worked because Peter Jackson -- whether conciously or not -- accurately preserved and/or acknowledged Tolkien's writings: salvation after sin (Frodo) vs the rejection of the offer of salvation (Gollum and Saruman).

Narina (OTOH) is explicitly Christian. It can only be debased by rejecting Christianity at its core. Whether Disney will do so is unknown at this point; though if history is any guide nothing is beyond Disney in that regard. I have low expectations.

Posted by: Gideon at February 23, 2005 2:17 AM

It is not obvious by reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Aslan is a Christ-figure, although I guess adults could identify him. Most of the children who read the books while I was growing up did not know them. In fact, I have a Muslim friend who revealed to me that he enjoyed reading the Narnia books immensely only to be "crushed" when told afterwords that Aslan was supposed to be Christ.

Narnia is not a true Christ allegory however. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not about re-enacting the Gospels. Aslan is simply the way the Son incarnated in the fantasy land of Narnia, and Narnia has its own history and is not Earth. The reason Aslan takes the form of a Lion and not a man, is that Narnia is populated by animals. Exact parallels to Jesus will not be found because Aslan is not Jesus Christ, even though he is the Son. Lewis only included those bits which are truly necessary to understand the Gospel, which is why the death and resurrection is there.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 23, 2005 11:05 AM


See? It works.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2005 11:10 AM

A cute-ified Narnia? Heavens preserve us....

(On the other hand, to guarantee success, all Disney has to do is to convince Abe Foxman to come out against the project with all guns blazing.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 24, 2005 3:23 AM