The New World

Opening on December 25th in Los Angeles and New York; wide release on January 13th.

 

 

Terrence Malick’s ambitious and idyllic cinematic imagining of the story of Pocahontas and Captain Smith opens in wide release on January 13th.  It will appeal to the romantics among us as well as Malick’s fans (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), though historians may tag it as revisionist. 

 

In 1607, thirteen years before the Pilgrims would land at Plymouth Rock, three small ships from England sail up a river in what would be Virginia and found a settlement they name Jamestown. Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) leads the expedition and the men intend to look for treasure. One of the men, John Smith (Colin Farrell), is bound in chains, probably due to insubordination. He is soon released.

 

The tidewater and low country is lush, but food is low. Smith and some men travel up the Chickahominy River to look for food but encounter the Native American Powhatan tribe; all but Smith are killed. Smith is taken to the Powhatan village and remains there for several months, even going through a kind of ritual of acceptance into the tribe. He meets Chief Powhatan’s (August Schellenberg) daughter, the young Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). They spend much time together wandering the wilderness and swimming in the river; Pocahontas teaches Smith their language and customs and Smith teaches her English. They become very attracted to one another.

 

Meanwhile, Captain Newport decides to return to England for supplies and more settlers.

 

Before winter sets in, Smith returns to the settlement with food. The men are near starvation and they are fighting among themselves. But in the spring, the Englishmen plant corn, a sign of permanence. When the tribesmen realize the English are not going away, they plan an attack. Pocahontas warns Smith and a battle ensues. When Chief Powhatan discovers that Pocahontas has betrayed them, he banishes her to another tribe. Later she is traded to the English for a copper pot.

 

Captain Newport returns with supplies and families for the colony and Smith decides to take a ship back to England without marrying Pocahontas. He has one of the soldiers tell her later that he died while crossing the ocean. She is heartbroken, but resigns herself to learn the ways of the English, putting on their clothing and shoes, and accepting Baptism because she can no longer return to any of the tribes.

 

There are many layers to The New World, as Malick, who also wrote the script, tries to give image to the myths and written accounts about the founding of the Jamestown colony from the perspective of both the Native Americans and the English. It is a new world for the English and the English, but most of all for Pocahontas who realizes this new Anglicized world is her only option for survival.

 

The amazing fifteen year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher, a newcomer who plays Pocahontas with depth and maturity, said in an interview that the tight corset, clothing, and shoes must have felt like a prison to the young woman who was giving up her cultural identity to survive. The change of costume from native to western clothing, said Kilcher, helped her as an actress to feel and understand what life must have been like for Pocahontas who after her Baptism would be called Rebecca. In actual fact, we never learn the name of this young woman in the film until she receives a Christian name – Malick’s nod to both history and the myth.

 

Some historians will surely accuse Malick of revising history since he does give way to artistic license for dramatic effect in several places. For example letters and diaries say that Opechancanough, played by Wes Studi, was really Pocahontas’ brother but in the film he plays her uncle who accompanies her and John Rolfe (Christian Bale; Batman Begins) whom she later marries, to England. According to early diaries and letters, the young Native American woman we call Pocahontas was probably traded to at least two tribes, but Malick decided to simplify the story which is already complex enough. The most obvious difference between The New World’s account of John Smith in Virginia and what a documentary might reveal is that this story is told as a myth that emerges from a shared dream world inhabited by the thoughts and non-verbal communication of director Malick and the actors who seem to play their roles intuitively. 

 

Wes Studi, known for his strong personifications of Native Americans on television and in movies, attached himself to the project because of his interest in the work of the Indigenous Language Institute of Santa Fe, NM (www.indigenous-language.org). He said in an interview with representatives from faith-based publications that the Algonquian language used in The New World was re-created out of about 27 words that were phonetically recorded in early documents. To Studi, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation, The New World while “wonderfully shot in the waving grass” is told from the English perspective because it is the Native Americans who lose and have to change, while the English express their entitlement to this land given to them in a grant from King James for commercial purposes.

 

Producer Sarah Green said to the same group of journalists that Malick manages to blend in a critique of this mythic version of merging of two worlds by having the English say that the Native Americans have no greed or jealousy in their hearts and then shows through visuals that they are willing to sell Pocahontas for a kettle; the Native Americans are offended by the smell of the unwashed Europeans.

 

Colin Farrell plays John Smith as a moral man, who is adventurous and courageous. His love for the young Pocahontas seems authentic and true. 

 

Terrence Malick’ filmmaking is experimental, as one film reviewer noted, because he is creating a new language for film by the jarring non-linear editing style, dependence on non-verbal communication for most of the film, and relying on his own imagination for how the real characters felt as historical events unfolded. The voice-overs are often soliloquies that accompany long, contemplative sequences and reflect Malick’s spiritual style in filmmaking. Malick is in love with visuals as actor Christian Bale noted, “You have the script and then depart from it completely, leaving out the dialogue”. Q’orianka Kilcher described working with Malick as, “If he saw the grass blowing a certain way, he’d just start filming it.” Then, “Because Malick would scrap dialogue, it was up to me to express what Pocahontas was feeling.” 

 

The New World is not a political or historical film; it’s an emotional experience – a visual treat for Malick fans. The New World is not an explicitly Christian film per se, although Pocahontas is baptized and the church is one of the first buildings to go up within the stockade. If anything, the film shows her to be a survivor who is resigned to her situation because being English and Christian is effectively the same thing. She quietly makes the best of blending two worlds although, as we know, it will lead to the eventual death of many Native American cultures. The New World could be a starting point, accessible to junior high students and up, to study the history of European colonization with parallels for today, if you want to give the film a contemporary reading. In my opinion, this aspect makes the film interesting for Christians and people of good will because human dignity and other principles of Catholic social teaching can elicit conversation about things that matter.

 

The child of Pocahontas and John Rolfe was the first inter-racial child born in the colonies; his descendents live on today.

 

With over one million feet of film shot for The New World, which Malick actually wrote the script for some 25 years ago (long before the 1995 Disney version of Pocahontas’ life), the final cut is 180 minutes long. Producer Sarah Green is betting that the extended version of the DVD will be even better.

 

Brokeback Mountain

In the summer of 1963 a lone cowboy, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) walks into a tiny Wyoming town looking for ranch work. As he waits to be hired, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in his old pickup truck. Both are hired to tend sheep at Brokeback Mountain by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). One is stay at the main camp, and the other is to stay with the sheep – against National Park Service rules – though they are to take meals together.

 

Ennis is strong, silent and seems very lonely. His parents were killed long ago in a car wreck and he was raised by his brother and sister until they married. Now alone, he looks for work but plans to marry a girl names Alma (Michelle Williams) come November. Jack is more open, mostly works at his parents’ ranch and has been in the rodeo; he obviously prefers to be away from home. Jack is attracted to Ennis almost from the start and seems to have a sense that Ennis would be open to his advances. One night when it turns cold they share the tent and Jack makes his move. Ennis resists – at first.

 

As the days go by Ennis makes it clear it was only a one time thing for him. Soon after, Joe rides down to the camp, and from a distance sees the two men kind of wrestling together. He cuts short their summer work. Ennis and Jack go their separate ways. Ennis marries Alma and has two children. He struggles to make a living for them. Jack hits the rodeo circuit and about three years later meets Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy man who sells farm machinery. Soon after, Jack sends a postcard to Ennis, rekindling their friendship – and more. Ennis responds and Jack arrives a couple of weeks later. Alma sees them greet each other with hungry kisses and is horrified.

 

For the next twenty years, the men keep up a relationship, meeting a few times a year to pretend to go fishing at Brokeback Mountain. Jack wants them to leave their wives and get a cabin and live and work together. Ennis cannot let himself do that. Jack looks for consolation in Mexico while Ennis considers remarrying after he and  Alma divorce.

 

Brokeback Mountain is a beautifully filmed movie; the natural landscape contrasting with what “the rules” consider the men’s unnatural relationship to be. It amazes me that director Ang Lee is able to enter credibly into so many different cultures to produce his films (e.g. Sense and Sensibility; The Hulk). I think the four main actors carry out their roles very well.

 

However, from the story perspective, I didn’t find the characters of Ennis and Jack or their highly romanticized relationship completely believable; their character development was one dimensional, that is, the here and now, on the surface only. What I did feel was empathy for Ennis’ loneliness, and even Jack’s at the end when we finally meet his parents in their broken down, barren ranch house. Jack’s father seems to have known his son was gay from the time he was small, and this is something for which he has not forgiven him. He seems to hate his son, and this sequence had an element of reality to it. When Ennis finds his old shirt and denim jacket in Jack’s boyhood room, I wondered if he missed Jack because of his great loneliness, or because of their relationship. Maybe we are not supposed to know for sure; perhaps people who have lived this experience have better insight to this story than I do.

 

As all media educators will tell you, entertainment media normalize behaviors. When did it become normal for men and women to live together before marriage? Did the media cause this phenomenon, or were they acknowledging something that was already a given, just that nobody talked about it? By telling stories about a subject that Christians and others believe to be immoral behavior, do the media promote it because of the implicit authority the media possess? Was this film produced because someone has an agenda? I don’t know.

 

But I would question, rather, whether or not there is a universal conflict in this film that would compare to the majestic landscape against which the story plays out (and providesthe obvious phallic symbolism throughout.) I think the film is representative of postmodern filmmaking because while Ennis seems to be conflicted about his sexual orientation, neither character wrestles with his conscience, or any objective sense of morality but rather with the culture – and not getting caught and punished by the culture (that Joe seems to represent.) 

 

The Church teaches that the joy and pain of all human living can be the subject of story-telling and drama. Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, certainly is about the search for joy and genuine pain, but I didn’t find transcendence here, mutuality, or authentic sacrifice, so dramatically and spirtually the film falls short for me. While a nod is given to the horror and injustice of hate crimes, and a father withholding love because of his son’s sexual orientation, the film, to me, was ultimately barren – and maybe this is the feeling the film wanted to evoke.

 

Brokeback Mountain is a difficult film. The important thing to remember, to me, is that Christ accepted everyone, and never mistreated anyone.  Also, it would be interesting to look at the theology of this film, because though Ennis and Jack do not seem to have a relationship with God or a church, there is frequent mention of God.

Memoirs of a Geisha

In the late 1920’s two young girls from rural Japan are sold by their father into indentured servitude because their mother is dying and he cannot care for them. A middle-man takes the girls to a town near Osaka, a major industrial center. One girl, the nine-year old, blue-eyed Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is left at one house of Geisha, the sister at another. The “mother” or owner of Chiyo’s house notices Chiyo’s blue eyes and says she sees much water in them – something that turns out to be true. She decides to send Chiyo and Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), another young girl, to a school to train to be Geisha. But Chiyo goes out at night to try and find her sister and is beaten when she returns. Mother makes her a servant to the house instead; Chiyo’s debt to the house mounts with each infration.

 

There is a Geisha in the house who persecutes Chiyo. Her name is Hatsumono (Li Gong), and she is threatened by Chiyo from the day she arrives.

 

One day when Chiyo is sitting on a bridge, crying for her sister, a man, accompanied by a Geisha, is kind to her. He gives her his handkerchief and buys her a sweet ice. The Geisha calls him Mr. Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and Chiyo determines that one day she will accompany him. It becomes her life’s ambition to gain him as her patron.

 

The Geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) comes to Mother one day when Chiyo is about 16, and proposes that if she can get top price for Chiyo’s virginity, that both Mameha and Chiyo will be free. Mother agrees to the deal, and Mameha becomes Chiyo’s mentor and gives her a new name, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). All of a sudden, Sayuri must learn to be a Geisha in a matter of months rather than years. At her debut, Mameha takes her to a sumo match and introduces her to none other than The Chairman and his business partner Nabu (Koji Yakusho). Mameha insists that Sayuri get the attention of Nabu, who has a scarred face, so that Hatsumono, who is also present, will not find more reasons to spread lies about Sayuri and lower her value. The Chairman recognizes Sayuri but out of friendship for Nabu, lets her go. For Sayuri, the Chairman’s handkerchief is her lifeline to freedom.

 

This is really only the set-up for the main part of the film which is about Sayuri becoming a Geisha, and the conflict she must live with: her own desires for life, wanting to be with the Chairman, and the cultural constraints of her only option for survival as a Geisha, or as a prostitute if she were to ever run away from the house that protects her.

 

Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden and directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully rendered film, filled with pathos, female ambition, cat-fighting, betrayal, and revenge – a hard world of women who powdered their faces to hide their faces, their real selves. The film teaches the audience about what it means to be a Geisha, a word that means art. Geishas were well educated and highly cultured young women who entertained married men; to find one as a patron was the ultimate security since this would give the Geisha an income for her house and a place to live out her life. Geishas, at least before World War II, were not prostitutes although losing their virginity to the highest bidder was their entrée into a culture of kept women who would only ever be “half wives.”

 

The film finishes before the novel does, which ends with Sayuri in New York. After viewing this beautiful film for 90 minutes or so the American soldiers who occupy Japan after World War II enter the picture and their rowdy, crass behavior clashes so badly with the refined tone of the film (as it is supposed to do) that I felt like someone was scraping their fingernails on a blackboard. Extremely effective.

 

Most film reviewers have already commented on the fact that most of the actors are not Japanese; unfortunately, most of us will not notice. What we do notice, however, is the fine, nuanced, felt performances of all the actors. Also, Arthur Golden is a man and not Japanese either and we wonder how he is an authority on this subject. I cannot answer that; but I did read the book a few years ago, and I think the film interprets it very, very well.

 

In a culture, in a world and moral universe that is far away, women in bondage struggled for freedom in any way they could. This film made me pray that women of all cultures be free to choose their own destinies, rather than only those made available to them by cultures controlled by men.

Paradise Now

A young woman, Suha (Lubna Azabal) passes through check point into Palestinian territory, probably Gaza.  Two young men Said (Kais Nashef) and  Khaled (Ali Suliman) work at a car repair shop where Suha comes to pick up her car. Said and Suha flirt with each other and she decides to leave it overnight. Later Khaled manages to get himself fired.

 

That evening a well-dressed man Jamal (Amer Hlehel) comes to Said’s house and tells him now is the time for Said and Khaled to ready themselves for a suicide bombing mission to Tel Aviv the next day. Both young men had volunteered and they wanted to do it together.

 

Later that night, Said wakes and goes to take the keys to Suha’s car back to her. As he slips them under the door, she wakes and they have coffee together. It is obvious they are attracted to one another, even though Said’s father was shot as an Israeli collaborator while Suha’s father is a Palestinian hero.

 

That day the men go to an abandoned tile factory; explosives are taped to their chests and videos are made of their last words. Neither of the men appear religious at all.

 

Jamal takes them to a crossing point, but something goes wrong. Khaled makes it back to Jamal’s car, but Said comes back and then re-crosses the border. When he sees a small child on the bus he is to take, he decides to go back to the Palestinian territory. Jamal raises the alarm when he cannot find Said; he and his men do not know if Said has betrayed them or what. Khaled demands time to search for his friend. He finally arrives at Suha’s house and they go searching together. Suha guesses what is afoot, and begs Khaled not to do this thing because nothing will change. They find Said at his father’s grave.

 

This gritty, haunting film makes you feel like you are there – the bombed out areas, the dirt, lack of clean water; the oasis of a home amid ruins, led by Said’s loving mother, the futility of terrorism and the uncertainty, the finality of death for a cause the young men are not totally convinced is right. Said sees no alternative; Khaled holds on to Suha’s arguments as a lifeline.

 

The film is short, intense, and the scope is narrow – it is not trying to take on the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict but implictly questions the rationale of all suicide bombers. It is a close-up on these two handsome young men, who may be a little manipulated by others who will live, never having to make a martyr’s video. The thing is, real martyrs don’t choose death; it chooses them.

 

Paradise Now is good filmmaking (by director Hany Abu-Assad) and hopefully is evoking much conversation about just alternatives to this decades-long increasingly desperate situation throughout the entire Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Dialogue and negotiation are the ways to resolve conflict and assure peace….

Squid and the Whale, The

Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) plays tennis with Ivan (William Baldwin); it is obvious the older man is trying to impress Ivan and his sons and wife, Joan (Laura Linney) with his skills, but it’s just as obvious he is slowing down.

 

On the way home, Bernard and Joan bicker as the boys listen from the back seat.

 

Bernard’s eldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) worships his father, a once published novelist turned university professor. The younger son, Frank (Owen Kline) barely understands the sophisticated commentary Walt generously shares with him about their father’s intellectual prowess and judgment of lesser literary figures as the two teens walk to school.

 

Things are tense at home, and Bernard tells the boys to come home on time for a family meeting. That evening, Bernard and Joan tell their children they are divorcing; Bernard tells them he is moving out and they will share custody of the boys evenly; every other night and alternate Thursdays.

 

The boys don’t want the divorce, and their lives swiftly disintegrate. Walt (whom Joan calls “Chicken” as if it is a term of endearment) learns to play and sing a song from Pink Floyd and passes it off as his own:

 

Hey You

(David Gilmour)

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me?
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles, can you feel me?
Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light
Don’t give in without a fight.

(http://home.mchsi.com/~ttint/heyyou.html for complete lyrics)

 

He wins $100 but when he is caught he must give it back and go for therapy.

 

Frank (whom Joan calls “Pickle”) starts acting out sexually to such an extent that the parents are called in to the school for a conference.

 

It is revealed that Joan has been having affairs for four years now; Bernard is jealous of her literary success and he only wants equal custody because it’s cheaper – he pays less child support that way. One of Bernard’s students, Lili (Anna Paquin) rents a room in his large, broken-down house and Bernard tries to seduce her; Walt walks in and is crushed. Meanwhile, Walt makes friends with a girl, but disses her because his father thinks she’s not good enough for Walt; not intellectual enough.

 

And so on and so forth. This unpretentious film about pretentious adults and children who try to imitate them was written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming; The Life Aquatic) and is said to be based on his own experiences as a child. I think Baumbach has captured the ravages that divorce heaps on children in ways that would make this uncomfortable film mandatory viewing for marriage preparation classes. The Squid and the Whale may not be the worst that can happen to a family because of divorce, but it is a strong cautionary tale: look, be realistic – this is what can happen when communication breaks down, when partners are dishonest with each other, when they commit adultery, and when jealousy and competition further divide them.

 

Bernard seems to want to reconcile, but why? He seems like one of the children – he needs the marriage to work for his own survival, he doesn’t necessarily want it. Joan laughs at him, her lack of kindness breaking off any hope of the audience liking her.

 

I appreciate the main metaphors the film employs to reinforce the story and the sense of loss: the game of tennis; the song Hey You, Walt’s cry for help even before the divorce is announced; kids sense disintegration long before they become its victims and commence on their own spiral downwards; and finally the image of the squid and the whale fighting from Walt’s early childhood.

 

The film is billed as a comedy and a drama; I thought it was a tragedy. Extremely well-acted and I would think an awards contender for all the Berkman’s; the kids are superb. Baumbach should be acknowledged as well for his insightful writing and ability to evoke such nuanced performances from these actors about a very, very sad sign of our times.

King Kong

In the early years of the Great Depression, a young actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) struggles to survive in New York City. When the theater where she works closes, a promoter suggests that she do burlesque for the money.

 

A filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black) screens footage for his investors who are not very pleased with what they are seeing. Denham wants more money so he can film on location, an island somewhere near Sumatra. He tells the investors that the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), has got the new script almost finished. The men ask Denham to wait outside while they discuss matters. Denham overhears bad news, and flees with his assistant, taking all the reels, that really belong to the investors, with him. Denham has taken passage for himself and his crew on a ship bound supposedly for Singapore, but Denham intends to change course and head for the mysterious Skull Island.

 

In the cab, Denham discovers from his assistant, Preston (Colin Hanks) that the lead actress has bailed. Denham jumps out of the cab, and sees Ann who is standing in front of the burlesque theater. As she turns away, he sees she needs work, invites her to dinner, and convinces her to come on the voyage. Once they arrive at the ship, The Venture, Jack is waiting and hands a few pages of a script to Denham. He turns to leave as Jack hears police sirens close in. Denham delays Jack because he needs a complete script; the ship leaves, and the adventure begins.

 

The ship is an old freighter whose captain (Thomans Kretchschmann) captures wild and exotic animals to bring back live for zoos. On board there is a huge amount of chloroform. Thus the stage is set for the passengers and crew to encounter King Kong.

 

King Kong reunites many of the team that brought us The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, including director/writer Peter Jackson, co-writers and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and Richard Taylor of the Weta Workshop for imagining the creatures (CGI’s) and digital effects. King Kong is Jackson’s pet (sic) project; the original film (1933) inspired him to be a filmmaker. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings II and III via captured animation, gives life, and eyes, to King Kong.

 

I saw the original King Kong almost forty years ago on television, and the only scene I really remember is Kong clutching Fay Wray in his hand as he climbed up the side of the Empire State Building (that had just finished being built in 1931, the year before the story takes place). When I finally got to go up in the Empire State Building in 1970, that’s the vision I carried with me. I don’t remember much of the original film except that it was in black and white, and that there was a bond between Kong and the woman. I think this bond is essential to the story, and one that Jackson and his team worked hard to re-create in this new interpretation of the original story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace.

 

But there’s much in Jackson’s three hour plus version that is not in the original, because I would have remembered: pre-historic animals, indigenous people who seemed straight out of a primative horror film (are they indigenous or are they shipwrecked colonists, otherwise why would they need walls to separate them from creatures?), and long chases through Jurassic Park-like canyons that could have been shorter. The acting was interesting. Before they got to the island, the characters acted as if they were in a 1930’s movie, rather melodramatic; once the action really started, well, the acting wasn’t that important.

 

Besides the action, adventure, and horror aspects of the film, there was quite a bit of Hollywood (or filmmaking) commentary that was funny. Jack Black as Denham is perfect in this role as the shyster filmmaker who will do anything to get the footage he needs. When the camera is wrecked, and the film exposed, it’s logical to Denham that they have to bring Kong back to New York, because no one will believe them. He’s a pragmatic philosopher, too, and somewhat of a poet, as you will see at the end. “There are many mysteries left in life”, he rationalizes to his assistant …, “and people will pay the price of a ticket to see them.”

 

King Kong will thrill you, scare you, and touch you. The film may evoke deep conversation from people locked in the intelligent design/evolution/creationism debate, because locked in Kong’s gigantic body, is intelligence and heart. If art can be said to be about, beauty, truth, and goodness, King Kong certainly tells a story of beauty and goodness; the truth is for each viewer to discern. To me it said that there are mysteries in the world still, with and without the movies.

 

The script has strong parallel structure but the film has some weak points. The first time Kong picked up Ann and swung her through the air, I laughed and thought “This is Barbie’s Great Adventure” come to life! As the film progresses, however, this impression fades away. There were way too many gross out ROUS’s (Rodents – and insects – of Unusual Size, from The Princess Bride), I have already referred to Jurassic Park and dinosaurs, and the film itself refers to the “Beauty and the Beast” tale. I would have preferred shorter chase sequences and instead seen how they loaded Kong on the ship and got him to New York.

 

The film stretched credibility several times, like when Ann kept climbing higher on the Empire State Building to be with Kong as he makes his iconic last stand against the men shooting at him from airplanes. If you’ve ever been on the observation deck of the Empire State Building you know how stong the wind can be; Ann never could have stood on that top platform in heels as Jack, her human love interest, arrives to rescue her. (It could be said that King Kong is the ultimate An Affair to Remember – 1957, Love Affair -1994, and Sleepless in Seattle – 1993. Hmm. Perhaps it is a love story from the male perspective after all; what would Freud and Jung say? One of my younger sisters, who is quite conversant on movies, just reminded me that a skyscraper is the ultimate phallic symbol. Ann’s last stand is also very iconic; is this a feminist re-interpretation of the original film?)

 

If you don’t like the idea of sailing on rough seas, tangling with awful insects of incredible size, or great heights, wait to see King Kong on DVD. The special effects are so excellent, and evoke such an intense physical reaction, that you feel like you are really there. I had to cover my eyes and peek through my fingers a few times.

 

I imagine it would be fun to deconstruct King Kong from the perspective of myth, psychology, and so forth. But in the last analysis, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is highly entertaining – and that makes it worth the price of a ticket.

Chronicals of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A Classic Fantasy Tale Re-imagined into Film

 

On December 9th the C.S. Lewis Estate with Disney Pictures and Walden Media are releasing a new visualization of C.S. Lewis’ 1950 post-World War II beloved fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

                             

Stepping into Narnia                                    

        The magic begins in an unexpected manner. A mother and her four children try to get to an air-raid shelter while the German’s are bombing London during World War II. They make it to safety, but the mother, Mrs. Pevensie (Judy McIntosh) decides to evacuate them to the home of an old professor in the countryside. Peter (William Moseley) is the eldest, then Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and the youngest Lucy (Georgie Henley), say goodbye to their mother as the train departs from the crowded station, their names pinned to their coats.

 

        When they arrive at the isolated train stop, Mrs. Macready (Elizabeth Hawthorne) picks them up and takes them to the mansion of Professor Digory Kirke (Jim Broadbent). She lays down the rules as they enter the magnificent house. The children begin to bicker about who’s in charge and Edmund, especially, seems to resent being bossed about.

 

        The children expect nice weather, but instead it rains. They decide to play hide and seek. Lucy runs off and opens the door of a large room empty except for a closet at the end. She walks towards it, opens the door with the tree carved on it, and shuts herself in. It is full of coats and such and as she pushes toward the read of the wardrobe, she suddenly finds herself in a forest covered in snow. She walks toward a lamppost in a clearing and encounters a faun, a creature that is half-deer and half human. He asks her if she is a “daughter of Eve.”

 

        The faun’s name is Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy). He seems very shy but kindly and invites Lucy to his home for tea. Soon he begins to be sad. When Lucy asks him why, he admits that he is supposed to report any “daughters of Eve” that come to Narnia to the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) or risk being turned into stone for treason. But he likes Lucy and helps her get back to the wardrobe, hoping that the Witch’s spies, the trees, won’t see them. Lucy thinks she has been gone for hours, but it has only been minutes, and her siblings do not believe her tale.

 

     Soon after, Edmund follows Lucy through the wardrobe. She runs off to find Mr. Tumnus, but Edmund encounters the White Witch who has kept Narnia in a state of winter without Christmas for 100 years. She beguiles him with a treat called “Turkish Delight.” Edmund’s gluttony leads him to tell the Witch about his brother and sisters and she makes him promise to bring them to her to Narnia.

 

       When the children all go through the wardrobe to Narnia, their adventures begin. Edmund sides with the White Witch only to be imprisoned by her. The children try to save Mr. Tumnus who has been taken by the Witch. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (voices of Ray Winstone and Dawn French) help to guide them. By now, the children realize they must help rescue Edmund as well because the Witch thinks Edmund has betrayed her. Along the way, the children discover the prophesies about the “sons of Adam” and the “daughters of Eve,” and that one day the great Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), would return to save Narnia.

 

                            

 

 

Indeed there are signs that he has come back: Father Christmas appears once again and winter is turning to spring. The laws of the land, however, dictate that the Witch can put a traitor to death.  Aslan saves Edmund; it is Aslan who will make the great sacrifice at the Stone Table and through the Deep Magic, something terrible – and wonderful – happens.

 

The Film

 

        The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe follows the book very closely by imagining the story from words into images and sound. For example, the book barely mentions the bombings, but C.S. Lewis in later writings explains that The Chronicles were written for the children who stayed with him and his brother Warnie during the war, and whose imaginations needed to be enkindled. So, the movie begins by showing how frightening it must have been in war-torn London, and the pathos of a mother sending her children to live with strangers so they will be safe.

 

       Once the children arrive at the house of the Professor, the chronicle follows the book closely, only condensing elements here and there. The young actors are wonderful and fresh. It is the first film for Georgie Henley, and the second for William Moseley and Skandar Reeves; only Anna Popplewell is a veteran with an impressive filmography.

 

        Lucy (the name means “light”) provides the radiance that the film displays even when there is danger and sorrow. Georgie Henley as this youngest child seems to let her imagination run free to embrace the fantasy world of Narnia to the extent that by the end, she is the one we remember. 

      

        The Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based team behind the special effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, crafted the visual effects. Richard Taylor, founder of Weta, said that he wanted the film to feel like it was actually crafted by the citizens of Narnia, and I think he achieved this. Rhythm & Hues, with headquarters in Los Angeles, handled much of the digital animation aspects and effects in the film.  The CGI’s (computer generated images) are realistic and wonderful to behold, from the fauns to the beavers, to the great Aslan himself. The CGI’s look almost as real as the animals and creatures they become on screen.

 

After his death to atone for Edmund’s treason, the lion Aslan rises in glory – it is the one moment in the film that gave me goose bumps. Liam Neeson’s voice as Aslan is gentler than I expected, and the touch of his paw calming, reassuring, filled with goodness. A child can intuit the unity in this magical world between all creatures and nature, a unity that as adults we yearn for, and by our good efforts, strive to make real.

 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is directed and co-written by Andrew Adamson, who also co-directed the Oscar-winning Shrek, and co-wrote and co-directed Shrek 2. His dedication to a faithful interpretation of the film for the wonder and delight of all audiences is evident throughout. Other writers are Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely.

 

For those wondering about the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that is The Magician’s Nephew that Lewis wrote five years later (1955): the story is in the door of the wardrobe itself. The tree from which the wardrobe was made is carved there, and other panels which are more difficult to see during the film, also reflect the prequel. Walden Media hopes that more of the Chronicle stories will make it to film, alas, not The Magician’s Nephew.

 

Is there a Difference between Harry Potter and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

 

With all of the controversy about the Harry Potter series it seems natural to ask this question. An Australian educator, Dr. Susan Reibel Moore, suggests that parents who may be concerned about the possible negative influence of the Harry Potter books or, for that matter, those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, look for the quality of benevolence toward children as the fundamental premise of the story. In the occult world, there is no comfort; there are no caring adults. The occult wants to recreate the world in a godlike way in order to control it. Fantasy wants to transform the world into a place where goodness wins the struggle.

Dr. Testa, vice president for education and professional development at Walden Media thinks that C.S. Lewis probably influenced J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, though their approaches are quite different. He told me during an interview last July that “Fantasy—the world inside the real world—is a literary tradition that goes way back in English history, a rich mine to excavate. Lewisuses storytelling as a teaching tool. He was a caring adult who tried to help children make sense of the bad things that had happened to them during World War II when London was bombed. This was the event that caused them to be separated from their parents and evacuated to the countryside to live with strangers.” And this is how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe begins.

Violence and Fairy Tales

 

         What is remarkable about this film is that it shows violence without blood (perhaps necessary to get a PG rating), yet our imaginations fill in what is missing in a kind of gestalt dynamic. Aslan’s death and the battle scenes are intense, whether we read about them or see them imagined into visuals. Yet C.S. Lewis did not set out to frighten children for no reason. He wrote:

“A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children’s literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened.

“Theymay mean that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is hopeless…or they may mean that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.”

“C.S. Lewis was a man of faith”, said Dr. Testa of Walden Media, “with a compassionate nature who reached out to children. He believed that by writing this ‘fairy tale,’ as he termed it, he could create hope for the future. The atomic bomb was the biggest moral event of his times. Five years later he wanted to give children a gift, something to look forward to and a way to resolve this moral reality through story.”

Resources for the Faith Community

     

      To help promote the film to faith communities, Motive Media has created a website www.NarniaResources.com  so that leaders of schools, churches, groups, and organizations can bring the film into a conversation with faith and the moral imagination. In addition, many books have been published since the movie was announced that can contribute to this dialogue and the teachable moments the film provides.

 For example, Mary Margaret Keaton, author of Imagining Faith with Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Stories from Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter (2005) writes, “For Christians the allegory is obvious. Aslan represents Christ, who offered his life in place of ours, whose death and resurrection won our freedom and redemption. In Aslan’s loneliness and sorrow, we recognize Jesus’ agony in the garden; in his humiliation and shearing, Jesus’ passion; and of course, in Aslan’s resurrection, the Easter story.”  (Available from www.pauline.org)

Keaton, a wife, mother, catechist, and journalist believes that talking with children about the moral dilemmas faced by the children in the story is the best way to let them talk about their own impressions and feelings of the film. She recommends that parents and teacher acknowledge the struggles children face when figuring out right from wrong, the difference between lying and telling the truth, feeling anger, asking for and giving forgiveness, and the struggle to be courageous and good.

Christin Ditchfield, author of A Family Guide to Narnia: Biblical Truths in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2003), goes through each of the Chronicles moment by moment offering biblical parallels and giving scriptural references as ways to link fantasy and faith. For example, when Lucy first looks into the wardrobe, Ditchfield quotes Ecclesiastes 11:9: “Be happy … while you are young…. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see.”

Finding God in the Narnia (2005) by Kurt Bruner & Jim Ware (who also wrote Finding God in the Lord of the Rings) is a guided tour of the and of Narnia that points out connections to the Christian faith.

Dr. Testa of Walden Media, however, explains that there will be different readings of Lewis’s classic. “Like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you can read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in many ways. This is the beauty of reading texts. As American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “In a good short story the message of the story goes on expanding the more a reader thinks about it.

“This is also what Jesus was up to with the parables. The more you think about them,the more they mean to you. What you bring to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is what you will get out of it. Our goal is to interpret the book faithfully into a film that audiences will delight in, at whatever level or dimensions they choose.”

According to C.S. Lewis, the purpose of fantasy is to heighten the child’s sense of reality and to explore and try on life through the imagination. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe audiences young, old and in between, are in for a fantastic voyage about goodness which is the essence of peace, that engages the story-teller, and listener, in all of us.