Friday, January 23, 2009

Prince Caspian

(movie review)

(Another movie, late review, geographical location, bear with me, et cetera).

When "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" came out 3 years ago, it was before I had started my anal retentive blogging project of reviewing every single movie I watched.

At that time, I was just reviewing movies sporadically, when I felt I had something worth saying.
I had a few thoughts knocking around my head after the first Narnia movie, and I was considering writing a post, but then I discovered Andrew had already written a blog post which said what I wanted to say, and a lot more eloquently and succinctly than I could have said it. So instead of writing up something of my own, I just linked to his post.

Unfortunately, if you follow that link today, it appears Andrew has deleted his blog, and the post has vanished. Which is unfortunate because I thought it was a really well-written review.

So I'll just recap briefly my thoughts on the first movie: back in 2005 I think a lot of us were a little nervous about "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" movie. Like everyone else in the western world, C.S. Lewis's books had been an important part of my childhood, and I had fond memories of the story. But let's face it, these books would have been difficult to film at the best of times. You have to duplicate C.S. Lewis's touch of subtlety so that the religious themes are there in the background, but the viewer doesn't get hit over the head with them.
You also have a story with lots of fighting and battle scenes, and you need to film for a children's audience without making it too violent, but without defanging it entirely.

Add to all this, the cultural wars that were going on during 2005. "The Passion of the Christ" had just proved that evangelicals were a new market force that Hollywood was eager to cash into, and this movie was supposed to combine the "Lord of the Rings" audience with the "Passion of the Christ" audience. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

And yet, for the most part, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" managed to hit all the notes just right. Sure, you could make quibbles about this or that, but when you consider the huge potholes the movie could have fallen into, I think it did a good job of walking that thin line, and avoiding all the different pressures on it. It pushed all the various agendas to the background, and simply tried to retell C.S. Lewis's original fantasy adventure story.

And I feel the same about "Prince Caspian", which is another excellent movie. Like it's predecessor, it manages to avoid the pitfalls of cultural wars and instead just gives the audience a really good story.

The first movie did a great job of creating a sense of wonder about a new fantasy world filled with exotic beings. And I think "Caspian" does a good job of duplicating this, plus showing how the stories of the first movie have become old legends and myths by the second movie.

The various battle scenes are well choreographed and very exciting.
The scenery is absolutely stunning. It makes me wish I had seen this movie on the big screen.
Like many fantasy films these days, this film was mostly shot in New Zealand, which must be an absolutely gorgeous place to visit.
(When I was a JET in Ajimu, the only other foreigner in the town was from New Zealand, and he used to tell me over and over again how beautiful New Zealand was, and how everyone who visited it never wanted to leave. The more I see of New Zealand in films, the more I'm beginning to think he wasn't exaggerating).

If the first two films are anything to go by, I'm really looking forward to seeing "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" when it comes out.
The only thing I worry about slightly is that these films are so good and so exciting, I wonder if kids will even bother to read the books in the future.
Don't get me wrong, I would have absolutely loved these films if they had been around when I was a child. But because C.S. Lewis's books are vague in places and leave a lot up to the imagination, I worry it might be hard to go back to boring old printed page after seeing all the dramatic battle scenes acted out on the screen.
Will these movies inadvertently kill what has, up until now, been a staple in every child's literary up bringing?

And well I'm at it, there are a couple other run off issues from this film that I worry about.

Some evangelicals have been pushing the Narnia Chronicles as the alternative safe fantasy series which all the good little Christians should go out and see, as opposed to bad little Christians who watch movies like "Harry Potter" and "The Golden Compass".

And, similar to "The Passion of the Christ", there has also been some public crowing by evangelicals about how well the Narnia series has done at the box office relative to other movies. As if it's a contest. Or as if somehow the glory of God can be advanced by the amount of people who bought tickets for these movies.

To the extent that small minded people have used these movies to advance their own agenda in the culture wars is unfortunate, but luckily it need not impede the enjoyment of these movies, which stand alone quite nicely independent of the culture wars.

The other issue is the violence. Because this movie is based on a Christian story, and because this series has become part of the culture wars, we find ourselves looking more closely at the violent content than we would at any other movie. I imagine we wouldn't even blink if these kind of battle scenes were in any other movie (even any other kids movie).
For just one example of the hand-wringing about the battle scenes in this movie, look at "Focus on the Family"'s review of this movie.

My impression, just based on reading reviews of this movie, is that there is that there is a bit of hypocrisy going on both ways. Some people are being extra hard on this movie because of its religious associations, and criticizing battle scenes which wouldn't even be noteworthy in any other film.
Other evangelicals who have made a career out of criticizing violence in Hollywood are giving this movie a free pass just because the source material comes from one of their own.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about it, because I'm not sure how I feel about violence in movies in general.
I'll be honest, I really enjoyed the battle scenes. I was really glad that the film makers didn't skimp on any of the fighting parts.
There's a part of me gets a real thrill out of seeing that kind of thing on the screen. I couldn't explain it logically, but it's something most males share. There's just something about that Y chromosome which makes us prefer stories of gunfights and sword battles to stories about love and relationships. Like most modern males, I've been attracted to violent stories my whole life,and I've felt somewhat guilty about it my whole life.

In my own life, I've made a distinct between fantasy violence on the TV screen (which I get a kick out of watching) and real life violence (which I oppose). And I like to think I've done a pretty good job of keeping the two separate. Hopefully most other people can too, but I can't vouch for everyone.
And even if I could, I'm not sure I could translate that into a moral absolute. Or in other words, even if I could make a really good case that violence in media doesn't have any effect on violence in real life (by, say, pointing out a society in which the violent media was even worse than in the US, but the violent crime rate was unbelievable low), I'm not sure I could make the jump to say it is therefore morally okay to show violence in the media.

The debate about sex and violence in the media has been going on long before we were born, and it will continue long after we're dead, and I don't want to clutter up this blog post too much with my half thought out ramblings. So let me try and see if I jot down a few intelligible thoughts about this story in particular, and then we're just have to move on from there.

The source material in Lewis's books are fairly violent to begin with. Granted, a lot of the battle scenes are implied rather than shown, or briefly covered in just a few sentences. But, let's face it, that may work in a book, but you couldn't make a movie like that.
Plus, I think I speak for all the former 6 year old boys who had this book read to them, in the theater of our minds we imagined it. The battle scenes that Lewis described in just a few sentences were huge epics in our own minds.
This is the same reason that young boys like the Old Testament so much. The bible may not give blow by blow accounts of all the fight scenes, but you'd be surprised what a 7 year old male imagination can do with a simple sentence like, "Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he [Samson] grabbed it and struck down a thousand men."

And dare I say, C.S. Lewis's stories would never have become popular among young boys in the first place if it hadn't contained that hint of violence in them.

In fact, well I'm at it, I think you can make the argument that almost the entire cannon of Western literature (nay, world literature) is based off of the human fascination with either sex, violence, or both. Think about works like the Old Testament, the Iliad, Ovid, Shakespeare, "The Romance of the 3 Kingdoms" , "The Tale of the Heike", "The Tale of Genji" (etc, etc, etc, I could list books all day.) Some works are more subtle than others, but it's hard to find a classic piece of literature in which these themes are not present to some degree.

But, okay, books are one thing, movies are another. How does a Christian responsibly translate Lewis's story onto the big screen?

This is a sticky issue, because there's a temptation to reduce this to a question of degrees. A small death toll on screen is morally acceptable, a big death toll is not. "Prince Caspian" is okay for good Christians to see because there's only 12 deaths depicted, whereas "Terminator 2" (which used to be my middle school teacher's favorite example of a movie good little Christians shouldn't go to see) shows 47 people dying. [These numbers are pulled out of my hat, by the way, but you get the idea.]

Of course another big difference between "Prince Caspian" and "Terminator 2" is the amount of blood and gore. "Prince Caspian" doesn't have any blood, and the focus on the family review cites this as a good thing.
But here again, this again is another complicated question. As every film buff knows, graphic violence in modern film was introduced by movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch" . At the time the directors argued that if you could show people how ugly and brutal real violence was, they would be less violent in their own lives. They argued it was the bloodless violence of cartoons and Saturday matinees that glorified and encouraged violence. And there may be something to this.

Having talked myself around a circle, I'm just going to have to end by saying I don't have easy answers to these questions and let it go at that.

Addendum: Look, I realize the above post is a bit of a mess. Sorry about that. It's hard to review a movie and write about violence in media in the same post. It just seemed impossible to talk about the Narnia movies without mentioning the battle scenes, and it seemed impossible to critique the battle scenes without exploring the whole question. Hopefully my thoughts are at least somewhat intelligible, even if they are inconclusive.

Second Addendum: But one last thought. I wish "Focus on the Family" and other groups on the Christian Right would get as concerned about real violence as they do about fantasy violence. James Dobson and "Focus on the Family" have been strong supporters of the Iraq War all the way through (see for example this link here). Compare this to the hand-wringing about the battle scenes in the Narnia movies in the review above. And--let's face it--"Prince Caspian" was one of their softer reviews. They really go for the juggular of the more mainstream Hollywood violence.
I know they're concerned about the effect on children, but someday I would like them to become just as equally concerned about the effect on children of losing a parent to war, or being bombed out of your home, or having depleted uranium scattered all over your country.

Another Addendum: Gasp! According to this article, the next film in the Narnia series might not even get made. Quick! Rally your prayer group!

Link of the Day
2008 year in review: Goodbye to all that! and 2008 year in review: Part 2, The end of an error

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