Is God Really Such a Pussy?

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Posted May 15, 2008 in Film

When is a lion not just a lion? When it’s in a fantasy tale for kids. Seven years after Lord of the Rings re-ignited the mid-century blockbuster allegory, American children have learned a heck of a lot about history—they just think Hitler’s name was Sauron. I’m as invested in meaning and subtext as the next suspicious Baptist, but fantasy’s death grip on fascism’s greatest hits is, well, anything but fantastical. Instead of transporting their readers to new, invented worlds, they drag them through their own only with all the players given dwarf pseudonyms. Where’s the imagination in sticking Jesus inside a giant cat?   

My resentment stems from the year I spent devouring Narnia as a 3rd grader only to have my mother gleefully tell me what moralism I’d absorbed. C.S. Lewis shrank from a genius to a salesman. Thus primed for subliminal speechifying, I welcome the opportunity to take nothing at face value in this latest big budget adaptation. Take for example the questionable bits in Prince Caspian, the second film, which offers up the old Hamlet trope about an orphaned would-be king (Ben Barnes) and his power-hungry uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). As the heads of the Telmarine clan, their family is responsible for the near-extinction of Narnia, which happened 1,300 years ago in their time and one year ago for the four Pevensie children, gushing Lucy (Georgie Henley), sharp Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and the older, wiser, hotter, and blander Susan (Anna Poppelwell) and Peter (William Moseley), both of whom seem to be constantly auditioning for a Chapstick ad. It’s a relief to find perfect Peter brawling in an Underground station at the film’s start; symbols are rarely accorded anything so messy as a sucker punch.  

The Tube stop transports them to a beach paradise decorated with ruins that the kids discover with shock are the tatters of their old castle at Cair Paravel. (What I wouldn’t give to insert Charleton Heston wailing in the foreground.) The Telmarines attacked and subjugated their land, but their worst crime was convincing the trees and animals of the forest to abandon hope of a leonine or Pevensie rescue. Devoid of faith, nature has drawn into itself and become remote and callous. Dear little Lucy the mystic, who in her velvet robes increasingly resembles Stevie Nicks, nearly gets eaten by a bear. As their new dwarf friend Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) cautions, “Get treated like an animal and become an animal.”  

Trumpkin offers this warning in a British accent. Which is fine as the default lilt of fantasy. Less comfortable is that the Telmarine baddies use a dark Mediterranean hiss with their black pointed beards in sharp contrast to the Susan’s rosy cheeks and the dwarves’ blonde dreads. The mud-colored, muscled centaurs from the next grove over sound African. They’ve got horses coming out of their ass; we don’t need a speech pattern to tell them apart. This layer of questionable association gives the Pevensie’s heroics a gloss of imperialism: “Oh those goofball creatures have gotten themselves in a mess again. They need four English teens to the rescue!” What could be better for youth’s bruised ego than to find cave paintings detailing your past heroics?

The first half of the film is a verdant slog. Director Andrew Adamson loves to use the 1970’s sunshine mist of a John Denver album cover. When the two teams rouse themselves for battle—the Narnian side now including a swashbuckling mouse intended to perk us up and send us to the toy store—the initial fights are a PG-rated fizz. Swords clash, people collapse, but the two seem nearly unrelated. Fighters don’t die. They just get knives thrown in their direction or a shove near the brink of a cliff, then at the crucial second, the camera distracts itself. The early battles are so movie generic they could be ripped from any film. It’s all war and no wonder. Mel Gibson could be running alongside in a kilt and you wouldn’t blink. But just when you’re feeling as bored stiff as the comatose elms, a crucial middle battle goes sour and the film is finally, blessedly tense. Lewis’ simplistic nattering about the haves and have-nots of faith goes grim. Adamson should push the lesson further than he does, but even a dash of bitters cuts the cloying.  

As for the great big cat, he spends most of the film etched on a glyph that in candlelight has the magic ability to look either beneficent or disapproving, whichever the gang deserves. When he does appear, it’s deflating. Our kids have proven their strength, but once again need his sonic boom meow to save the day—and humble their pride, like you just know your Fluffy dreams of doing when she gazes at you coolly from the couch. Aslan’s killer move this time is the creation of a deadly river tsunami that feels icky to cheer. It’s only been three years since Reverend John Hagee (a John McCain supporter) blamed the gays of New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. If we have to learn life lessons from a God Cat, do they have to side with Bill O’Reilly?

 


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