The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Two films about people who get dragged into another world against their will came out in the weeks before Christmas. Both films were sequels to movies with strong messianic overtones. And both films were somewhat disappointing, albeit to different degrees.

For my money, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a better film than Tron Legacy; but as of this writing, it seems audiences might disagree.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The first Narnia film was a massive hit five years ago; but the second film, Prince Caspian, made only half as much money at the box office when it opened three summers ago, and now it looks like Dawn Treader will make only about half of that. In truth, it’s not doing much better than The Golden Compass did at this time of year three years ago.

That’s a shame, because Dawn Treader is a pretty decent family film on its own terms. It’s not a particularly faithful adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ original novel, true; but it retains enough of the key themes, and it has a storybook quality that sets it apart from the first two films. It also features one of the most unlikely but appealing friendships ever.

As before, the film follows Lucy (Georgie Henley) and her elder brother Edmund (Skander Keynes), as a magic portal whisks them out of World War II England and into a fantasy world where they are honoured as Queen and King. But this time, they bring along their bratty cousin Eustace ( Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter), a committed skeptic who is shocked to find that the stories he refused to believe about Narnia might be true after all.

This time, the story does not take place in Narnia, per se, but on a boat that carries King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and his entourage to various islands, in search of seven lords who were expelled from the kingdom before the events of the previous film.

There are several adventures along the way – including a skirmish with slave traders, and an encounter with a star that takes human form. But the heart of the film belongs to Eustace and his odd relationship with Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg) – the valiant mouse who is initially inclined to rebuke Eustace for his lack of honour, but very quickly becomes a sort of mentor and protector of his. Their final scene together is surprisingly touching.

Alas, the writers have imposed a new storyline on the film to hold the various episodes together – something about a green mist that kidnaps people – and this means the movie reaches its climax a little sooner than it ought to.

The film still ends, as the book does, with the children meeting the divine lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) at the end of the world, and being told that Aslan exists in our world under another name (hint hint). But instead of being the last in a series of mystical encounters, the scene now comes across as an afterthought, after the green mist has been dealt with.

Missions Fest Vancouver Film Festival

It happened last year, and it’s happening again this year, so now it’s official: the Missions Fest Vancouver Film Festival is an annual event.

Focusing primarily on documentaries, this year’s festival begins January 28 with the world premiere of Freedom Fighter, about a pastor named Majed El Shafie who fled persecution in his native Egypt and now lives in Canada. El Shafie himself will be at the screening.

The bulk of the festival takes place January 29, and will cover everything from the Middle East – via films like Little Town of Bethlehem, directed by Jim Hanon ( End of the Spear) – to race relations in the Deep South, courtesy of Mississippi Remixed, directed by the Vancouver-based filmmaker Myra Ottewell.

Not all the films will be brand new, though.

The festival will also dip into the history of Christian film-making by screening The Flame, a 1952 featurette about Korea. It was made by World Vision founder Bob Pierce and Dick Ross; the latter went on to make a series of Billy Graham films, as well as The Cross and the Switchblade.

The film festival concludes January 30 with a series of short films. See the article below for more details.

Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, Prince Caspian and Silent Night

Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

If you watch the Indiana Jones movies in the order they take place, rather than the order they were made, you may notice something interesting.

The first, Temple of Doom, introduces Indy as a cynic out for “fortune and glory” who discovers that there are higher spiritual realities after he encounters what we might call a Hindu cult.

The second, Raiders of the Lost Ark, puts Indy in touch with the God of Moses. And the third, Last Crusade, revolves around the Holy Grail.

So the first three films take Indy on a journey from selfish skepticism to paganism to Judaism to Christianity – not a bad trajectory, all things considered.

But the new film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, gums things up by moving beyond religion altogether and taking its cue from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.

This time, Indy, his associates and his enemies look for supernatural inspiration in the psychic power of extra-terrestrials, of all things.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the new film were as amusing, exciting or even thoughtful as the films that came before it. But alas, despite some high points here and there, far too much of it isn’t all that thrilling or even interesting.

Indeed, much of the film comes off as a pale and lazy recycling of the trilogy that came before it.

The Indiana Jones franchise began as an homage to old-fashioned movie serials; but by now, it has become an homage to itself. And that’s not nearly as much fun.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is, if anything, a better film than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – and a worse adaptation.

The filmmakers have given themselves a lot more freedom to change things this time, and this makes the movie more consistently entertaining – but it also strays further from C.S. Lewis’ ideas.

The whole point of Lewis’ book was to reawaken in his readers a love of mythology, but in a ‘baptized’ form – hence a key sequence features the Christ-figure Aslan and various Greco-Roman figures, including the god Bacchus, dancing together. But that theme is almost entirely missing from the film, and so, too, is Aslan – who is virtually written out of the story altogether, until the final 15 minutes or so.

To be fair, Prince Caspian is still one of the better action-packed fantasy battle epics to have come along since Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings came to its end nearly five years ago. But it could have been so much more than that.

Silent Night

Right from the opening shot, which shows a black starlit sky gradually giving way to the warm glow of a rural sunrise, it is clear that Silent Light – which plays June 5 – 12 at the VanCity Theatre – will be a beautiful and challenging film.

The film concerns a Mexican Mennonite farmer who has a wife and several children but has fallen in love with another woman. His understanding father says the affair is a temptation sent by “the Enemy,” but the farmer says it feels so “natural” it must be from God. And yet even he can sense, at times, that it must be wrong.

The affair is handled discreetly, with just a modicum of nudity. Along the way, there are stimulating discussions about the nature of destiny, bravery and the ways in which people associate happiness with feeling like a part of the world – a theme which is emphasized by the film’s intimate use of natural sounds and scenery.

However, for all its naturalism, the film also seeks to transcend its earthly bounds, in a way that is part Lars von Trier, part Carl Theodor Dreyer. Occasionally the film lets its seams show – crew members reflected in the window, the occasional actor looking right at the camera when they probably shouldn’t – and reminds you that it’s just a movie. But it also points beyond its movieness to deeper mysteries.

See vifc.org for tickets and showtimes.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the pro-Intelligent Design and anti-atheism movie starring Ben Stein and produced by Vancouver-area Christians, may be coming to Canada after all – though it’s not clear when, exactly, it will get here.

Yoko Ono has sued the filmmakers for using a tiny snippet of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on the soundtrack. The filmmakers say they used it under the provisions of “fair use.” On May 19, their lawyer argued in court that this issue needed to be resolved soon – partly because the DVD rights needed to be finalized by the end of May, and partly because the film was set for a June 6 release in Canada.

A few days later, however, Expelled co-writer Kevin Miller said at his blog: “It’s now looking more like it will be released during the latter part of the month.”

As of this writing, the film has grossed $7.5 million in the United States, making it one of the dozen top-grossing documentaries of all time.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is about four children who discover a magical country while staying in a professor’s house, far from their home, during World War II. They enter this country, called Narnia, through a secret portal in the back of a giant closet. And once they get there, they discover that their arrival is the fulfillment of an old prophecy.

Narnia, the Pevensie children learn, has been shrouded in snow and ice for a full century; it is a land where it is always winter but never Christmas, thanks to an evil would-be queen called the White Witch. But it is prophesied that, one day, two boys and two girls will come to Narnia and take their place as the rightful kings and queens of that land.

Do the children ever raise any objections to this news? Does one of them ever stop to say, “Hold on a minute, what if we don’t want to fulfill somebody else’s prophecy?”

Not in C.S. Lewis’s original story, and not in most of the plays, cartoons, TV shows and radio dramas that have been based on it. With fairy tales, it is generally assumed that children want to be kings or queens, and the question faced by characters and readers alike is not whether they will want to achieve their destiny, but how they will go about achieving it.

Alas, fairy tales are not what they once were, and the newest dramatization of Lewis’s story — the first to be produced for the big screen — reflects the ambivalence of our age. It also reflects the perceived need for “realism” in film, a “realism” that is more about emphasizing human flaws and epic battles than about recognizing true strength of character.

In this version, directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) from a script credited to him and three other writers, the children — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) — often discuss their desire to return home to England. When Edmund is captured by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), Peter insists he doesn’t care about the prophecy, he just wants to get his brother back.

The film underscores this connection to their home by beginning with a sequence depicting the air raids over London at the start of the war; in fact, the film basically begins inside a German bomber cockpit. As the Pevensies are herded into a shelter by their mother, Edmund runs back into the house for a photo of their father, who is away with the army. Peter chastises him: “You’re so selfish! . . . Why can’t you just do as you’re told?”

In this and other ways, the new film generates some sympathy for Edmund, and makes his eventual betrayal of his siblings seem less sinister, or less deliberate. The film also makes such a big deal of Peter’s reluctance to lead the Narnians that it is not quite convincing when he and his siblings finally do take up arms against the Witch’s massive army.

Most of the other characters are revised in subtle but significant ways, too.

Throughout the film, Susan tries to be the “smart” one; she is reluctant to believe that Lucy has found a new world, or that animals can talk, or that Father Christmas (James Cosmo) is real, and — like many children who have read Lewis’s book — she points out that the prophetic poem quoted by Mr Beaver (Ray Winstone) doesn’t actually rhyme.

But when Susan and Peter consult with the Professor (Jim Broadbent), after Lucy first reports that she has found a new world, he tells them to stand by Lucy because she is “family” — a statement that affirms our post-modern preference for tribal loyalties more than Lewis’s belief in objective truth. In the book, the Professor gives Peter and Susan a version of Lewis’s famous liar-lunatic-or-Lord argument when he explains why Lucy is probably telling the truth; but in the film, he talks of “logic” only when he gently mocks Susan’s use of the word.

In addition, the film gives the Witch more stature while dialing back the stature of Narnia’s Christ-figure Aslan (a magnificent CGI lion voiced by Liam Neeson) just a notch or so. The Witch instantly knows that Edmund is a “son of Adam” without having to ask, while Aslan loses some of his warmth and ironic humour, especially when the Witch boldly approaches his camp and demands Edmund’s life. Here, it is Aslan, not the Witch, who loses his temper.

The Pevensies, too, steal some of Aslan’s thunder. In the book, Father Christmas declares, “Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” But in the film, he tells the children, “The hope brought by Your Majesties is starting to weaken the Witch’s power.” Similarly, Mr Beaver tells the children that Aslan’s arrival in Narnia is one of several things that have happened “because of you,” almost as though it was the children who prompted Aslan into action.

Christian fans may also be disappointed that the film makes no reference to Aslan’s father, the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, or to the Deeper Magic that existed before the dawn of time. Instead, as one of the film’s producers put it, at a press junket attended by my friend and colleague Steven D. Greydanus, Aslan simply “figures out” the Deep Magic in a way that the Witch did not. In these and other ways, the film tones down Aslan’s omnipotence and authority.

Granted, it is no crime if a movie makes changes to the story on which it was based — and not all the changes here are for the worse. But Christians have a special attachment to the Narnia stories; Aslan not only represents Christ, he is Christ in Narnian form, and much has been made of the book’s apologetic and evangelistic potential and, therefore, of the film’s as well. But it is precisely on those points that the film is weakest.

Some scenes do work very well. Henley is absolutely adorable as Lucy, and the scenes in which she befriends the faun Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy) are simply enchanting. The children are genuinely believable as siblings (and as the eldest of two boys in a four-child family myself, I know whereof I speak). And Swinton is the first actress in any filmed adaptation I’ve seen to understand that the White Witch’s evil must, at times, be subtle, crafty and seductive.

The film’s special-effects team also does a fine job of bringing Lewis’s imagination to vivid life, though the results are a little iffy in places. The Witch’s castle is like a bouquet of icicles turned upside down, and Aslan’s sacrifice is, appropriately, a dark and foreboding nightmare. The griffins — creatures half-eagle, half-lion — are nicely rendered, though the Fox (Rupert Everett) is more of a cartoon, and the Beavers and the Wolves fall somewhere in between. (In an interesting twist on the usual Hollywood casting choices, the heroes are all British, while the bad-guy wolves are voiced by Americans.)

But even on the purely technical or cinematic level, the film has its problems. Some of the new dialogue is strictly boilerplate, and Harry Gregson-Williams’s otherwise impressive symphonic score occasionally gives way to an out-of-place pop-vocal arrangement that jars at the very moment when it is supposed to enchant. The battle scenes also come across like a pale imitation of the equivalent scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lewis once said the important thing about a myth is not how it is told, but the “pattern of events” it communicates; after that, he wrote, “you can throw the means of communication away”. By that standard, Adamson’s film is a success; it covers all the basic plot points — including, yes, Aslan’s death and resurrection. But the nuances surrounding these events have been changed a fair bit, and the script loses much of the flavour of Lewis’s books.

This could have been a fantasy film for the ages, but, as it is, once you have beheld the pattern of events, you may find that the film itself is not so hard to throw away.

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Schmaltz sells

Christmas movies have always tested the line between spirituality and schmaltz, between pious sentiments and crowd-pleasing entertainment. Who can forget how Jim Carrey camped it up in Ron Howard’s chintzy adaptation of Dr. Suess’s moralistic How the Grinch Stole Christmas? This year’s batch includes the usual family movies (Cheaper by the Dozen 2), musicals (Rent), and noirish crime stories set oh-so-ironically during this time of good cheer (The Ice Harvest). But the stakes may be higher than usual this year when Disney releases The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on December 9.
Georgia Straight, December 1

God’s blockbuster

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is poised at the heavenly gates of box-office supremacy. It’s also the latest family movie to be bankrolled by secretive billionaire Philip Anschutz — Globe and Mail, December 3

The Lion, the Witch and the marketers

Publishers are hoping to cash in by releasing and re-releasing a slew of C.S. Lewis-related titles, with a special push on selling to religious groups — Globe and Mail, December 3

The need for a Neverland

With the debut of Narnia, we are again transported through a portal into a parallel world — CanWest News Service, December 3

Hollywood follows money, finds faith

The upcoming release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is part of a quiet but significant revolution that has been shaking the United States for several years but is only beginning to touch Hollywood: a battle, perhaps as vital as the fight between the White Witch and the army of Aslan in the C.S. Lewis novel, between the sacred and the profane. — CanWest News Service, December 5

Blockbuster entertainment or Christian evangelism?

Hollywood adaptation of kids’ stories refuels often vicious debate — Ottawa Citizen, December 6

Maverick actress goes off radar with White Witch

‘I play the epitome of all evil, which is a free pass into… nonsense,’ Tilda Swinton says — CanWest News Service, December 7

The other side of the wardrobe

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “The good ones last.” Indeed. — Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, National Post, December 8