Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Animal Tales Part I: Aslan and the Narnia Chronicles

The much anticipated and much advertised Chronicles of Narnia (Part One) of C.S. Lewis have finally hit the movie theaters, and judging by the initial weekend this movie will be a box office success. Christians of course have been apprehensive about Disney being the ones who filmed this wonderful tale, as this is not a fairy tale or a cartoon nor even a fantasy really and sometimes Disney has managed to offer up some pretty unseemly fare of late. Apprehension then is understandable when its the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that Disney is filming. It is a Christian allegory, with Aslan the lion playing the part of Christ. I am happy to report that all is well. While the Christian theme is not played up any more than it is in Lewis's book, it is also not sublimated either--- thanks be to God.

My own reservations about this movie from the start were whether the CG Aslan would really do the ole boy justice. I am happy to report that the movie does not come off hokie, but in fact is beautifully filmed and is true to the story. You will remember that when the film gets into high gear, once the children discover Narnia through the Wardrobe, Narnia is not in good shape. As it is well announced "here it is always winter and never Christmas" a sad state of affairs, which those who close churches on Christmas ought to think about.

Once again, as in the Lord of the Rings, good is good and evil is evil, even when it can be tempting and alluring (with the help of some Turkish delight). There are no moral ambiguities really explored in this tale, but rather the story is about the deep magic, the miracle really that changes human nature and the course of human history-- namely the freely given sacrifice of love and of the Beloved-- Aslan.

The movie really does not come across as a CG type movie, not least because the characters like Mr. Tumnus are of course part human, as are most of the characters except Aslan, and also because unlike the battle at Mordor, or the Dark Tower, here the great battle takes place in Julie Andrews territory ala The Sound of Music--- in dazzling sunlight in a beautiful Alpine glen (it would be nice to know where this was shot). Lewis, like Tolkien his fellow Inkling, loved the mythological creatures like fawns and centaurs, and we have them in abundance in this film along with more quaint creatures like talking beavers :) The children are entertained and the parents will be amused.

The Pevensie children are played admirably by actors and actresses most will not know, but especially winsome and wonderful is the young girl who plays Lucy the true believer with wide eyed wonder. You get the feeling this is what Jesus had in mind when he said "unless you turn and become as a child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God". Edmund is also well played as the black sheep of the family who must be rescued from his lying and selfishness and turns heroic in the end. One of the more telling moments in the movie is when Peter the eldest child says that Edmund went wrong in part due to his own fault, his not always being a help or an encouragement to a younger brother. In an age of "it wasn't me" pleas in our country, this is refreshing and reminds us that we are indeed our brother's and sister's keepers.

But there are much more profound theological lessons in this tales two of which must be mentioned here. The first is Lewis' profound conviction that "we are all in this together" by which I mean he stresses that the whole of creation is feeling the effects of the fall and all of it, including nature must be redeemed. Romans 8 has a good deal to say about this if we would but listen-- "for the creation was subjected to frustration not by its own choice... but in hope, that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (vss. 20-21). Lewis also stresses that humans are the crown of creation, meant to rule over it. Though he loved an animated creation and creatures, he did not worship Mother Nature nor think that humans are merely a part of nature.

The second major theme, is that indeed there is a deep moral logic undergirding and overseeing the world, and that when the times are out of joint, they must be set right. But that which sets things right is a free act of sacrificial love, which while not setting things back like they were before the fall, instead carries creatures and creation to a whole new act of creation. For Lewis it was crucial that the act of Christ be totally a free and self-giving one. In others, for Lewis for it truly to be a loving act, it needed to not be a predestined or predetermind act. Lewis believed that predetermination and love were incommensurate concepts at least when it comes to human beings and their destiny and opportunity for loving relationship with God and with each other. Especially telling in this version of the Christian story is that Aslan dies in particular for Edmund-- Edmind the liar and betrayer. Jesus himself reminds us in the 4th Gospel that while a person might die for their friends or for a good person, but who would die for a betrayer or liar or enemy? The answer is Jesus would, showing that his love is pure grace--- unmerited favor freely bestowed, undeserved benefit freely given.

There are lots of Christian touches in the movie that the astute reader will pick out, like the fact that Aslan revives God's frozen people by breathing on them (see Jn. 20) or like the moment at the end of the battle where Aslan kills the witch and says "It is finished" (see Jn. 19). It becomes clear that this Christ figure owes most to the Gospel of John. Let us hope that the Christian themes of the movie are not so unobtrusive that audiences will largely be oblivious to them. Let us hope they at least fall in love with true goodness and beauty and thereby with truth. Let us hope enough go to see this movie, that the next episode in the Chronicles of Narnia will be a lovingly and well filmed.

A long time ago a newspaper man was fired from the Asheville N.C. newspaper for doodling-- drawning little pictures of mice and ducks and dogs. This man was Walt Disney. Walt Disney was a man with a remarkable imagination, like C.S. Lewis, and he put it to good use. There was something redemptive about even his most frivolous cartoons. Let us hope the post-Walt Disney will learn something from the response to this film and make more like it, stories that do have "some redeeming value". If so, it will be a return to form and Walt would be thrilled. In this post-modern age the rebirth of imagination is what we should expect and what the most Creative One of all would want.


Layman said...

I saw the movie last weekend and thought it was excellent. The actors playing the children did a very good job, especially Lucy and Edmund. I also thought the actor portraying Peter captured the sense of responsibility he felt as the oldest and his desire to be fighting the evil threatening his own home as well as that threatening Narnia. The skepticism and second-guessing of Susan shown through, perhaps too much.

I have seen some who have complained that it does not measure up to the Lord of the Rings. But whereas the LOTRs was for mature audiences, the Chronicles of Narnia are decidedly children's novels (however much adults enjoy them).

I thought Aslan was short-changed somewhat. Not by his visual portrayal or even by his voice (Liam Neeson was perfect), but by the limited "chatter" (compared to the book) of other characters about the nature of Aslan and the lack of any mention of his father, the Emperor Beyond the Sea. My impression is that this was due more to time constraints than any desire to limit the comparisons of Aslan to Christ.

Word is that due to the promising opening, Prince Caspian has been green lit and the script is almost complete.

Thanks to Walden Media and to Disney for bringing the literary masterpieces to the big screen.

Ben Witherington said...

Glad to hear about Prince Caspian. Lets hope Johnny Depp is not cast as Prince Caspian since he is about to play Pirates of the Caribbean again :)

Layman said...

I heard an interview with one of the producers who was anxious to start producing Prince Caspian because "Edmund has already grown a foot since the filming of the LW&W."

Speaking of poor casting choices, let us hope they do not cast Macaulay Culkin as Caspian.

I have to admit that the adaptation I am most looking forward to is the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Peter Kirk said...

Thank you for this review. I am looking forward to the chance to see the film.

I found a web page which lists the Narnia locations. Concerning the final battle scene it says:

Up in the peaks of the Southern Alps on the South Island of New Zealand, is an area of twisted rocks and deep valleys known as Flock Hill. This is where the great battle for Narnia was created.

Many of the locations were in New Zealand, a country whose stunning scenery is ideal for Narnia (at least once winter had ended!) and Middle Earth.

By the way, note that Tumnus is a "faun", not a "fawn" like Bambi.

J. B. Hood said...


Thanks for this, as well as other great recent posts (including Xmas closings...).

I also noticed that almost nothing was said about the Emperor, but I wasn't really disappointed by the film in the slightest. It was terrific.

My wife and I only had one caveat--this is a bit scary to be a children's film; at least for very young kids. And as a teacher, I'd add that it's absolutely critical that a child READ the books (all of them) before seeing ANY of the movies. This will generally guarantee that 1) they'll be of suitable age for seeing a movie with some darkness and violence, and 2) they'll have their own book-engaged imagination properly cultivated before entering such a vivid film, where 'imagination' is spelled out for them in detail.

I think CSL would probably agree with both of those points.

Matt said...

I also felt under-awed by Aslan. He wasn't hokey or anything, but somewhat less than awe-inspiring. Indeed, there was no mention of him being the son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea, nor was there any real sense conveyed of what made him different than the creatures in Narnia.

The talk at the Beaver's about him was cut woefully short (Mr. Beaver's "he's not safe.. but he's good" line being a notable absence), leaving us with much less info on who exactly Aslan is.

So, I walked out of the theatre having enjoyed the movie, but moreso with a desire to dig into the books again!

J. B. Hood said...


The "good but not safe" line came in later--at the end of the movie. I guess moving this is understandable, as long dialogues aren't the stuff of Disney movies. I'm just glad they got the line in at all!

Layman said...

J.B., as I remember it Mrs. Beaver did say that line, but Mr. Tumnus finally got in the "he's not a tame lion" at the end of the movie. Thankfully.

Weltanschauung said...

I'd just like to say the almost all of Narnia was filmed in NZ (my home country) as was the Lord of the Rings and as was *all* of King Kong even the bits filmed in in NY. I was filmed in my home town of Wellington (as were some parts of LoTRs). In fact I have taken the dog for walks along the coastline of "Skull Island".

New Zealand is a beautiful country. New Zealanders used to call it God's Own country, but I'd have to say that spiritually that is certainly not the case. It's physical scenery is beautiful, it's spiritual scenery is bizarre belend of secularism and New Age.

Thanks for the review anyway. I am looking forward to seeing it, hopefully tonight.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Matt I hope to get to New Zealand someday. I have lectured several times in Austrailia but not in New Zealand, and certainly it is a beautiful place.

Marc Axelrod said...

My wife and I really enjoyed this movie. Lucy was adorable. And Aslan was great.

When Aslan was negotiating Edmund's release by virtue of his own sacrifice, was that kind of like the ransom theory of the atonement?


The Ghost of Herbert Becker said...

Off the main topic, but this caught my eye :

A long time ago a newspaper man was fired from the Asheville N.C. newspaper for doodling-- drawning little pictures of mice and ducks and dogs. This man was Walt Disney.

Where are you getting the story about Walt Disney having worked in Asheville, NC ?

Walt's first job was at the Kansas City Film Ad Co. , where he worked for two years , from 1920 - 1922 , after he served with the Red Cross in WW I (1918-1919) , then his own Laugh-O-Grams Studio (1922) in Kansas City . After Laugh-O-Grams went bankrupt in 1923 he moved to Los Angeles and started over in his uncles garage , moving in to a small storefront office in 1924 with his brother Roy (Disney Bros. Studios) and a contingent of transplanted Kansas City friends like Ub Iwerks and Hugh Harman.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Marc:

I notice that as well. Yes I think it was kind of the ransom theory of the atonement. Of course it all depends on what you mean. Ransoming someone from the bondage of sin is certainly Biblical. But paying a ransom to Satan, to whom Jesus owes nothing is a medieval notion, not does it make sense of the fact that subsequent to the atonement various human beings are still in bondage, and some still in league with Satan.

Ben Witherington said...


I have heard this story many times while living in western N.C. I would assume it transpired prior to his time in Kansas City, and is not mentioned later since it was a short stint that ended in a bad way.

Ben W.

The Ghost of Herbert Becker said...

I have heard this story many times while living in western N.C.

Well, that's a new one for me . Is it in print anywhere ?

I'm something of a Disney buff and have read a fair number of biographies and the Asheville, NC connection never comes up .

Chronologically I can't make it fit with what I know about Disney's early life and career , but I'd sure like to know the origins of that story .

John said...

So far as the Wat Disney in North Carolina story, it seems to originate with a man named James Hoyle, who claims to have worked with Disney at a Ashiville drafting company, not the news paper.

The offical Disney-posted bio and that of a popular fan site make no mention of any North Carolina connection.

That, of course, doesn't mean it isn't true. It just isn't something they reference.