Lion and Sheep

Let's keep politics, as much as possible, out of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There appears to be an urge, not among five- to ten-year-olds as far as I am aware, but among belligerent religionists, to gird for backlash against the perceived Christian propaganda in the adaptation of the mythic children's book by C.S. Lewis. I suspect, though I don't fully understand these squabbles, that they are overprepared. Any nonbeliever sufficiently jaded to regard Jesus as just another myth, just one of the thousand faces of the universal hero in Joseph Campbell's oft-quoted title, will be disposed to regard the talking lion, Aslan, as just the thousand-and-first. True, the hot-potato term of "Christmas" is unapologetically, unpolitically-correctly, bandied about. (The magical kingdom of Narnia, when we first stumble into it, is a chill place of endlessly prolonged winter and postponed Christmas, a place in desperate need of deliverance.) And Santa Claus himself, temporarily unemployed, puts in a brief appearance in the role of "helper" -- in Campbell's mythological paradigm -- to dispense "tools, not toys" to the juvenile disciples of the leonine messiah. True, too, the identification of the boy disciples as Sons of Adam and the girl disciples as Daughters of Eve establishes straightaway a Biblical frame of reference. And the Medieval motif of the lion's encampment might pass very well for an encampment of Richard the Lion-Hearted on the road to Jerusalem, laden with all the volatile overtones of the Crusades. For all this Christian saber-rattling, however, the only sort of person I can conceive of who might take offense at the film -- offense at its advocacy of things like peace and goodwill -- would be the zero-tolerance fundamentalist who cannot abide a faun, for instance, on the grounds that no faun was logged on the passenger list of Noah's Ark. But that line of attack would be coming from within. An intramural holy war.

If you can stay out of the crossfire, this is a good children's film, better, for my money, than any of the four Harry Potters, better than any third of The Lord of the Rings, albeit still rather longish at two hours and twenty minutes. In the first place, and in spite of the existence of six other books in the Narnia series, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end -- and all in one film! (What a concept!) In that respect, it calls to mind the original Star Wars, not the original trilogy, much less the following trilogy, but the single, solitary film. The stand-alone film. The film that had to wait for the box-office returns before it could contemplate sequels. The ending of Narnia in particular, with all its triumphal pomp and circumstance, calls that film to mind. The beginning, on the other hand, calls to mind an even better children's film, The Secret Garden (the 1993 version at any rate), with four parentless children packed off during the London Blitz to a gloomy mansion of rigid rules ("No improper use of the dumbwaiter," etc.), where they soon discover, at the back of the wardrobe in the spare room, a portal to the alternative universe of Narnia. (The transitions between the two worlds are dreamily seamless.) A prophecy, they further discover, has foretold of their coming as well as their overthrow of the reigning Wicked White Witch, wonderfully visualized -- an icicle crown, frozen-stiff hair, snowman's lump-of-coal eyes, clammy, oystery skin -- and commandingly played by Tilda Swinton. But wait: "We're not heroes!" Well, never mind. They will need, and receive, plenty of assistance, from an equivocal faun, a bickersome couple of bantering beavers, and a self-sacrificing fox, before they meet up with the Lion King and his courtiers. And while these, along with much else, open the gates to computer-generated imagery (and some herky-jerky movement of some of the figures), the effects are never piled on to the degree of the Potter films, never overloaded. They serve, as they should, the story. (The director, Andrew Adamson, comes to his first live-action film by way of the Shrek cartoons, and he has brought along a few Sons of Shrek as extras in the crowd scenes.) The narrative incidents unfold smoothly and swiftly and at times quite excitingly, especially the assault of the wolves on the beaver dam and the ensuing pursuit through the underground escape tunnel. And the execution of Aslan, in an atmosphere that reeks of a witches' Sabbath, is about as brutal as it could be without becoming as sadistic as The Passion of the Christ. (The willing victim won't say "It is finished" till his return from the dead and his ascension only as high as the throne.) His immediate resurrection, although the logic of it had been withheld from us, and although the allegory of it cannot be ignored, is nevertheless easier to swallow than, subsequently, the prowess of the children on the battlefield or the wholesale resurrection of casualties on that field. The lesson in courage at that point, or those points, gets a bit muddied. It almost smacks of cowardice.

* * *

Brokeback Mountain should fulfill any desire for a homosexual cowboy movie, superseding all those inadmissible innuendos as to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, et al. It fills out and plumps up a sketchy, skinny, yet ample short story by E. Annie Proulx, about a love that dare not speak its name in the unliberated time and place of 1963 Wyoming, a love that could not be denied despite denials ("You know I ain't queer" and "Me neither"), a love that would survive each man's marriage and fatherhood, over a period approaching two decades, but a love that could never come down from the mountain where it sprang up: "This is a goddam bitch of an unsatisfactory situation." Though the story was quite presciently written before the murder of Matthew Shepard in that same territory, the movie, obviously, arrives long after that, and with a clearer, cruder sense about it of payback, of axe-grinding, of remedial education. The cowboys, to be strictly accurate, are actually shepherds, tenders of a flock of sheep, always a symbol in Westerns of the dying of the frontier and the coming of civilization. And for the benefit of the benighted in the audience, each man is allotted an independent moment of manliness, the first a hackneyed confrontation with a pair of foul-mouthed bikers at a Fourth-of-July family picnic (an episode capped off with a low-angle shot of the clenched-fisted cowboy posed heroically beneath blossoms of fireworks), the second a sharply written confrontation with the bossy father-in-law at the Thanksgiving table.

There is also a sense about the movie of material stretched too thin, a slow, uneventful, time-biding start, working up stealthily to the moment of maximal male bonding, and then a straightforward, chronological, but time-skipping follow-through. The greater detail and delay on screen, as against the page, do not equate to greater credibility. One credible detail: the horseplay that turns rough on the eve of their first parting, the eloquent expression of nonverbal types. Contrastingly, their first reunion, a clinch of sumo-wrestler ferocity, right under the nose of one of the wives, is miles from credible. Jake Gyllenhaal, with his choirboyish pretty face and lofty voice, is the more acceptably typecast of the two. But Heath Ledger, lowering his voice to a Scott Glenn register, inside a clamped jaw, and suppressing his native Aussie accent, conveys the more poignant image of inhibition and concealment. Both actors look good in their jeans, in their hats, on their horses, and with their Marlboro Man smokes. And the voluptuous landscape is lovingly photographed. Director Ang Lee already did a lot of that in Ride with the Devil, and did it, at the time, with more impact of surprise and revelation. (Ang Lee? Man of action?) What's new here feels frankly inevitable, not at all revelatory; and the director of The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, and The Ice Storm seems an unsurprising man for the job.

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