Thursday, February 24, 2005

Narnia and Disney: Aslan the Pooh?

The movie of C. S. Lewis's Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is in the hands of Disney. Disney is wondering how to treat this explosive material. From the New York Times:
But this time, the pros at Disney are wrestling with a special challenge: how to sell a screen hero who was conceived as a forthright symbol of Jesus Christ, a redeemer who is tortured and killed in place of a young human sinner and who returns in a glorious resurrection that transforms the snowy landscape of Narnia into a verdant paradise.

That spirituality sets Aslan apart from most of the Disney pantheon and presents the company with a significant dilemma: whether to acknowledge the Christian symbolism and risk alienating a large part of the potential audience, or to play it down and possibly offend the many Christians who count among the books' fan base.

The story goes on to say that they have decided to just present the story as it is found in the book and let it speak for itself. That seems to me like a wise decision. The book has been enjoyed for decades by those within and those without the Church, and the movie should attempt to duplicate this without playing up its implicit Christianity or playing it down.

However, they are certainly avoiding the topic of religion. Check out what this official movie web-site says about Lewis. One would never guess that his fame and popularity had anything to do with his Christian beliefs. There is not the ghost of a whisper of a hint about religion in the entire web-site, although it does provide a link to Harper's site, where Lewis's faith is acknowledged.

What really worries me are two things: (1) Disney's ham-handed, treacly approach to visual renderings; and (2) the merchandising.

As for (1), the Disney artists, despite their occasional genius, have usually treated pre-existing visual art with about the sensitivity of the Vandals looking on the monuments of ancient Rome. A good example is the vulgarization of Winnie-the-Pooh. Compare the E. H. Shepherd "Classic Pooh" renderings of Pooh with "Disney Pooh." What on earth will they do with Pauline Baynes's Aslan? However, the conceptual art available at the website mentioned above looks good so far.

(2) The merchandising. I suppose I could live in a world filled with plush Aslans and Mr. Tumnuses; but does Disney now own the rights to these characters? Are we going to see the Mole family on lunchboxes, Narnia playgrounds at Disneyworld, and Aslan doing commercials for ABC-TV programming? Or (even worse) can Disney now produce their own hideously bad new Narnia stories and cartoons, in the way they have debased and degraded the Milne canon? Horrible thought: will we eventually wind up with both "Classic Narnia" and "Disney Narnia"?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

7 comments:

Eliyahu ben Avraham vaSarah said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the character designs. While Disney is producing the picture it isn't an animated feature and the visual effects are being handled by Weta Digital, the unit responsible for the effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Evan said...

I wouldn't worry too much about the Narnia films, since, while funded by Disney, they're being produced by Walden Media (www.walden.com), a company set up to produce entertaining family movies based on childrens' literature. While they butchered Around the World in 80 Days, they made excellent movies in Holes and I Am David - and their newest release, Because of Winn-Dixie, has received excellent reviews which note its unflinching portrayal of Christianity.

I had a chance to chat with one of the executives at Walden this past summer, and he was quite clear that Lewis' Christian themes would not be watered down. That, of course, remains to be seen, but based on Walden's previous track record, I would trust that the Christian themes will come through.

It will be fascinating to see the reaction to this film. If it's made faithfully, then it might approach The Passion of the Christ's popularity. That would be worth a few Reepicheep Happy Meals!

EMC said...

Thanks, guys. I feel better about the movie. I still want to know if Disney has any rights to the characters themselves, or if their rights extend only to the making of the movies.

Michael Turton said...

>>>>>>However, they are certainly avoiding the topic of religion. Check out what this official movie web-site says about Lewis. One would never guess that his fame and popularity had anything to do with his Christian beliefs.>>>>>


Does it really? For most people he's famous as a fiction writer. His other life as a writer of low-grade apologetics might loom large for many Christians, but few people in the world at large know much about that. For example, here in Taiwan, many of my students have read or at least have heard of his books, but are unaware that they are connected to Christianity, let alone that he is revered by millions of Christians for other kinds of writings. You have to live in a culture like the US, absolutely saturated by Christianity, to catch the allegory.


>>>>> There is not the ghost of a whisper of a hint about religion in the entire web-site, although it does provide a link to Harper's site, where Lewis's faith is acknowledged.>>>>>>


Goes both ways. It is common for movies to downplay any interesting religious commitments or ideas, or eliminate them, or reconfigure them in conventional ways. I could give you a list of atheists similarly downplayed. And you have to remember that Disney is an international marketing firm, and there are countries where Christianity is not a factor, like Taiwan, or is positively discouraged. All across Asia, there are many people who privately consider Christianity to be a form of demon-worship. So Disney has to toe some very uncomfortable lines. You should be glad they are making the movie at all.:)

I did find it amusing that Disney said that they would follow the book, though. Since when do movies do that? And the effects firm in charge being part of that trainwreck called the Lord of the Rings does not fill me with confidence on that score either.

Michael

Eliyahu ben Avraham vaSarah said...

"And the effects firm in charge being part of that trainwreck called the Lord of the Rings does not fill me with confidence on that score either."

While LOTR didn't follow the books as faithfully as some would have liked, I don't think you can fault the effects team at WETA for that. If anything I thought the effects were the best part of LOTR, but effects alone won't make it a good movie.

Of course, I enjoyed Jackson's version of LOTR.

EMC said...

Michael: maybe if the Chinese were more familiar with Lewis's theological writings, they would have a more accurate view of Christianity.

Michael Turton said...

>>>>>Michael: maybe if the Chinese were more familiar with Lewis's theological writings, they would have a more accurate view of Christianity.>>>>>>

My impression is that people here simply aren't interested in Christianity, accurate or not. Most of the Christians I know converted because they lived in the US, and did so mostly to fit in. The greatest missionary success has been among the aborigines, whose native cultures have been destroyed by Dutch, Chinese and Japanese colonialism, modernization, and finally, missionaries.

You have to really live in a place where Christian religious ideas are taken seriously as religious ideas, like the US, in order to...take them seriously. One of the things I've learned in Taiwan, really learned, not just intellectually, is how little impact the Christian stories themselves have if your culture does not prepare you for them. Really, I doubt accuracy is an issue. The whole mythoreligious thrust of the culture is different. So Christianity doesn't press any emotional buttons for the locals.

I suppose we could also wrestle over whether Lewis' portrayal of Christianity is "accurate" or what an "accurate" view of Christianity would be. Speaking as an atheist and skeptic, I doubt we'd see eye-to-eye on that one! :)

Michael