The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the best satirical send-up of Christianity I have ever seen—better than The Magic Christian or even Life of Brian. It skillfully uses fantasy clichés, horrible acting, ridiculous writing, and unmistakable allegorical nonsense to illustrate the follies of Christianity. The writer of this tall-tale made an excellent decision to disguise his satire through the use of ridiculous fantasy characters living in an equally ridiculous fantasy world. Through these mechanisms the bizarreness and irrationality of Christianity comes through in full force.
Huh…sorry…what was that?
You're not serious…
I apologize, I've been informed that the movie is intended to be an "allegorical argument for the truth of Christianity." Pardon me, let me start over…
The past few months have been swarmed with Narnia madness. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe enjoyed the second largest opening December weekend ever. Adding to the fervor is a set of consistently good reviews from critics all over the country and an impending DVD release that sits in the top 10 of Amazon sales. The Chronicles of Narnia seems to have assured itself both a franchise contract and a substantial amount of loyal followers.
The pertinent question is "why?" Seeing how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not a good movie, and is not even an *okay* movie, I am left somewhat mystified.
I'm not going to belabor upon my unqualified opinions about the film's more revolting cinematic components. But it is worth mentioning, aside from my points that follow, that the film failed in nearly every regard. The acting, except for the impressive and precocious ten year-old Georgie Henley (Lucy Pevensie), is resolutely awful. The script is a laughable piecemeal of non-sequitors: sudden and uncalled for expository segues, derivative jokes (particularly the Beavers and their "marital spat" that was as tired and banal as something on "The Lucy Show"), and non-existent character development that gives characters their entire personalities in single, poorly delivered lines (i.e. Peter's scolding of Edmund in the first scene "Why can't you just do as you're told?").
The score is a treacly and overwrought pseudo-choral stew of soaring voices and layered strings springing up at all the wrong moments. The overall effect is as incongruous as a lovemaking session to Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone." The poorly chosen animal voiceovers would be jilting and disconcerting if they weren't so hilarious (honestly tell me you didn't chuckle when the wolf first spoke). Fully animated stories with talking animals are all well and good, however when real humans interact with them all you end up getting is "Mr. Ed"—but without the cool theme song. Furthermore, the film is peppered with a seemingly endless array of "what the fuck?" incidents. (i.e. why did Edmund leave his coat when he left the Beaver's dam? And, come on…Santa?!?) To top it off the CGI is appallingly bad; bad enough to make Star Wars Episode 1 look like, well, Star Wars Episode 4. Overall, these aspects combine to produce an "epic" film that is less epic than, say, Naked Gun 33 1/3.
However, I am not here to talk about the poorly delivered cinematic elements of the film. I will leave that to those more qualified and interested in such cinematic analysis. You may totally disagree with my criticism of the film and perhaps feel that the CGI, acting, or other aspects were incredible. So be it. Such aspects, as bad as I found them, did not constitute the main sources of my dislike for the film. Rather it is the overtly placed and unskillfully instituted allegorical aspects of the film that mainly fuel my ire. You see, I have a secret to tell you: pssssst…The Chronicles of Narnia is really about Christianity.
Clearly I am being facetious. Of course The Chronicles of Narnia is about Christianity. C.S. Lewis was the most important Christian apologist of the last 200 years. His books have become a defining influence on Christianity as it is currently practiced. One would expect a Christian message to come from such an author. Furthermore, I did not enter the theater expecting a clear allegory not to be there.
It may be clear that I have not read the books. As a child, however, I did see and enjoy the cartoon. Although I had lost most of the details of the story, I was able to remember the sense of wonder it instilled in me through the stirring concept of another world existing in your armoire. And I was honestly excited for the movie—despite knowing what the movie would be "actually" about.
One of the hallmarks of truly bad Sci-fi/Fantasy—one of the traits of bad art in general—is the lack of subtlety. Sci-fi/Fantasy is particularly prone to this mistake due to its usual insistence to have a clear "message." If you wish to have a demonstration of this characteristic I advise you to turn on the TV next time an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series is being shown. Although any episode will do, you may be lucky enough to get the episode featuring the people with black and white faces. In this stirring, tear-jerking episode Kirk tries, with every acting bone in his body, to get a race of people to understand that, although some of them have black on the left side of their faces and white on the right and others visa versa, their differences are trivial compared to their similarities. They shouldn't hate each other, they should love each other! Life lesson learned and society duly chided. If you can manage to get through this episode without rolling your eyes out the back of your head then you are stronger than me. Either that or you don't demand subtlety in your artistic diversions.
The Christian message embedded in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is delivered with as much subtlety, tact, and inconspicuousness as a speech given to the NAACP in blackface. It hits you across the face like brass knuckles on a tenderloin and continues to goad you as you try to pick yourself up off the mat. It is as obvious as a cross-dressing sumo wrestler and as annoying as a kid on an airplane. It is as subtle as the Hundred Years War. In short, it is as overdone and annoying as this entire paragraph.
I must make it clear that my qualm with the allegorical nature of this film is not with the fact that it is a Christian allegory. I have seen numerous Christian allegories that did not irk me so. My issue with the film is that it is a horribly delivered allegory—be it Christian or otherwise—that reduces any meaningful characters or plotting to simply cogs in a machine that mindlessly stamps out the message. Edmund's incomprehensible betrayal—he knows the White Queen is evil and is motivated entirely by Turkish delight—can only be understood by viewing him as a metaphorical device. Temptation, temptation; that ubiquitous Christian conceit.
In some respect the movie actually paints an excellent argument against Christianity. It continually shows that "Christian logic" fails to make sense even in a world populated by talking animals and sentient trees. The metaphorical devices fall as short of explaining The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as they do towards explaining Christianity itself. The concept of substitutionary atonement (Jesus/Aslan dying for our sins/Edmund's sin), as played out in the movie (accompanied by a "crucifixion" scene that might as well have been directed by Mel Gibson), seems bizarre and out of place unless one accepts Christian dogma. Lewis tries to make sense of this act by referencing the inviolability of the "Great Magic" and its rules for how traitors are to be treated. This explanation only seems contrived and convenient. Once again, the mindless machine stamps out the message.
The overall effect is a movie that is only about Christianity. Quality texts have the sense of being incidentally about something—that is, they tell an incredible, engaging story that also, as if by magic, drives home some higher, more philosophical point. However, the story can stand on its own. The effect of conspicuous message placement—non-subtlety such as that seen in Star Trek: The Original Series—is an inability to take the story seriously. It is difficult to do so when one cannot help but get the sense that the author didn't take the story seriously. At each turn the author simply asked himself how he would best be able to cram in his allegory. And, like an ageing woman trying on old pants, he will continually insist that "it fits perfectly" despite the fact that he is sucking in his gut and the buttons are bursting. Aslan is nothing but an empty allegorical vessel. Edmund is simply a marionette controlled by a puppeteer who is reading the wrong book for the script. For 2 1/2 hours you simply get to watch Lewis's message stamping machine go through the motions—all the time knowing what product will emerge. As much as Jesus is not actually talking about a mustard seed or a man who owns a vineyard, Lewis is not writing about a winsome, whimsical land populated by talking animals and magical creatures. Like a parable of Jesus, when one tries to view the story as a story, and not a mechanism to convey an allegorical truth, the story becomes ridiculous and one is forced to retreat to the metaphor.
Thus, because it is only about Christianity, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can be informative look into the Christian belief. The film effectively illustrates an aspect of Christianity that is not often discussed; the nature of temptation and what it means to be tempted. Temptation has been viewed, throughout the history of Christian dogma, as precisely those sorts of things which Edmund falls prey to; base and carnal delights. Christian thought has often been circular on this matter by seeming to define "base and carnal delights" as precisely those things that people are wont to fall prey to. However, if one watches the film with a question in mind—"who is doing the tempting here?"--the moral clarity of the situation begins to blur. Christianity is as much of a temptation as "Satan's delights"—offering community, dogmatic support, eternal love, and—the ultimate temptation—eternal life. In the movie Aslan offers something that is as tempting as the offerings of the White Queen. It is a temptation arms race; summer vs. winter, friendship vs. individuality. And it is not clear who is good and who is bad except for the fact that Aslan is defined as good and the Queen defined as bad. Phew, dodged that moral quandary. But, if a selfish pursuit of eternal life lived in a world of ultimate pleasure isn't the supreme carrot on the stick, I don't know what is. Jeez, and I'm not supposed to say, "pass some more Turkish delight."
The true foil to The Chronicles of Narnia is the Lord of the Rings movies—and in many more ways than you may realize. J.R.R. Tolkien was a great friend of Lewis. He is sometimes credited with actually converting Lewis to Christianity. Tolkien's books are also fraught with Christian metaphor (although denied by Tolkien). However, Tolkien delivers his messages with tact and some amount of ambiguity. And, as far as the movies go, The Chronicles of Narnia is about as far away from the Lord of the Rings movies as "Cop Rock" is from "Seinfeld."
The Chronicles of Narnia is not a rousing escape to a magical fantasy-world. It is a trip to a church with a bad, possibly intoxicated, pastor. It is a contrived journey via a fumbling allegory into the familiar and profoundly pedestrian. It is a walk down the street in a retirement community. It is a trip to the supermarket on double-coupon day. It held the same type of bare-bones, 3.5 seconds of amazement you get when you enter a neighbor's house for the first time and see that the floor plan is identical to your own home: "Wow, it's familiar but looks different." Only seconds later, "where's the dip?"
But, ironically enough, I do encourage you to see it; if not only to see what all the hubbub is about. But, moreover, I am interested to hear if anyone feels the same about this movie as myself. Thinking The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of the worst movies ever seems to be a lonely thought.
However, if you do go, bring some dip.
Just in case.