Not Even Aslan Can Save This 'Narnia'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Just as the giant flying turtle Gamera of Japanese monster movie "fame" is, according to his English-dubbed myth, a "friend to all children," so too am I myself a friend to all animals. Perhaps it's some vestige of my boyhood admiration for St. Francis of Assisi or something, but I'm just goofy for all fur-covered creatures. If forced, though, I'd have to allow that when it comes down to brass claws, I'm pretty much a cat person. How much of a cat person? When I saw the movie version of "Watchmen" and the purple saber-toothed tiger belonging to the villain showed up, I reflexively exclaimed, "Kitty!"
Hence, then, my favorite thing about the series of films adapted from C.S. Lewis' series of children's fiction "The Chronicles of Narnia" is Aslan, the awe-inspiring yet adorable talking lion who, in the religious-allegory scheme of things in the Lewis oeuvre, is a stand-in for, well, Jesus Christ himself. I haven't read the "Narnia" books, so I don't know exactly what Aslan's trip was in them, but in the films, Aslan's not so much about helping poor people and being mindful of casting the first stone as he is about Manichean moral assessments and achieving adolescent self-esteem within the yellow lines (as it were) of said assessments. It's all tied in with the various allegorical figures, some elfin, some animal, some a combination of both, which people the enchanted realms of Narnia, realms that are exhaustively explored in the books, and now in the third film of this series, by some ordinary British children during the World War II era.
While one might well be tempted to make light of the whole Jesus-as-talking-lion conceit, there are any number of people out there who take it very seriously indeed, although this group does not make up a substantial portion of the mass movie-going public. Even without knowing the books, one can intuit that the Narnia film -- the series began in 2005 with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," continued in 2008's "Prince Caspian" and now goes seafaring in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" -- have been progressively playing down the explicitly Christian philosophical content of the original's text in favor of more smushy feel-good-about-yourself ecumenical bromides. And what's even more problematic for, um, lay moviegoers is that the films are growing more generic and threadbare as entertainments.
Say what you will about "Lion/Witch/Wardrobe"; it was at least a meticulously conceived and vigorously executed attempt to transpose both the whimsical and morally serious idiosyncrasies of Lewis' creation. This picture, in which the adventure is set mostly at sea and features, among other things, an initially reluctant but eventually burgeoning friendship between a snotty little boy who gets turned into a dragon and a noble, swashbuckling, wannabe-hero talking rat, mostly plays like a perfunctory cross between watered-down iterations of "The Wind in the Willows" and any "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie you'd care to name, assuming you'd care to name any. The CGI effects are so thoroughly slathered over every aspect of the picture from the opening crowd scene onward, that at times the film barely registers as live-action at all. Helmer Michael Apted, taking over for Andrew Adamson, is an experienced filmmaker, but he here seems to be dealing with logistics more than anything else.
The characterizations are thoroughly paint-by-numbers. The main kids here are the younger Pevensie siblings, Edmund and Lucy. Edmund's the one with moral/White-Witch-fixation problems (and the White Witch is an older woman, played by the bewitching Tilda Swinton; here, though, the situation is kinky, but not kinky enough), and Lucy's got very relevant-to-the-world-we-live-in-today self-image problems (snore). And their cousin Eustace is just a little horror with satanic eyebrows and a permanently turned-up nose. Guess which one is obliged to live as a dragon for a while? (Incidentally, the kid who plays lil' Eustace, Will Poulter, may be doing a Dame Judi Dench impersonation on purpose. It's impossible to be sure.) The dialogue is ... well, it's like this: "I do wish you were here with us. It's been such an adventure!" Or, "You've grown stronger, my friend." "Seems I have. " Or, "We have nothing if not belief." Viewers and critics who complain the "magic" is "gone" from the "Harry Potter" films need to check this out just to see how gone magic can get.
As for Aslan, the Jesus Kitty is barely in this thing, but when he shows up, his mane, in retrofitted 3-D, is so fluffy you just wanna reach out and stroke it. And as voiced by Liam Neeson, he has a gentle purr power that just washes over you. And just as you're thinking, what a great cat to have, you wouldn't even have to feed him, because he can just make his own loaves and fishes, he lets out a jarring roar as if to say, "Knock it off, would-be blaspheming wiseacre." It's almost enough to make you think that if the filmmakers want that magic back, they'll make the next picture all Aslan all the time. He really is a good kitty.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.