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Thursday, April 02, 2015

A Story Out of Time and Place and the Escape Hatch of Fantasy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) -- Retro Nostalgia

With the monumental success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus; 2001), Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson; 2001), and their immediate sequels, Hollywood perhaps hoped to capitalize on the epic fantasy feel of Tolkien's narrative and the young adult/children's audience that so fervently devoured the Harry Potter books.  Naturally, they turned to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

If I'm honest, I'm quite a fan of the Narnia films even as I'm critical of their structure.  There's something deliciously joyous about portal fantasies wherein children are whisked away to save the world, hanging out with talking beavers and every fantasy creature under the sun.  Narnia was wish fulfillment for me in so many ways.  Adventure?  Check.  Epic scale?  Check.  Kids becoming greater than themselves?  Check.  It is a deeply hopeful series of films (and novels -- though I suppose The Last Battle might be perceived as rather "doomsday-ish" today).  Sometimes, one needs a little optimistic, no?  The first of these films, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (dir. Andrew Adamson; 2005), is perhaps the strongest as a narrative, but it also has its problems.  Granted, these are problems which make more sense in a certain perspective, even if they don't quite work in film.
The first of these problems is fairly easy to critique.  If you've seen the film, you'll know that Peter and the rest of the Pevensies somehow miraculously learn military tactics, swordfighting, horseback riding, bow shooting, and other combat-relevant skills in a matter of minutes.  In the film, this is assumed to occur in a handful of days; the White Witch and her army, after all, are merely hours from the location of the Narnian army.  Throughout the film, the sense of time is skewed, partly because, as we learn, Narnia runs on a different clock from our own (a year on Earth is decades on Narnia) and partly because time is not strictly relevant in this world.  The first film doesn't address this latter point all that well, to be honest, though you can sort of follow the logic after repeat viewings.  Regardless, the longer the film runs, the more its sense of time deviates from the measured pace of the opening scenes, wherein the Pevensies survive a Nazi bombing of London, are sent off to the countryside by train, and spend a considerable amount of time trying to being normal kids whilst living in a country at war.  The deeper into the fantasy world we go, the less time (and, by necessity, space) become relevant features for the narrative.

Additionally, the film's logic of time is intricately bound up in its treatment of space.  That Aslan can run vast distances in mere hours at what is a remarkably quick pace for a very large lion (as indicated by the development of the battle between the Narnians and the White Witch's army) suggests either that the film has no sense of time or that the world of Narnia is not nearly as big as we assumed.  The latter seems the more accurate interpretation in the sense that our interpretation of space is necessarily an Earthen one, a problem which the Pevensies are or become, as with time, deeply disinterested.  Once they become embedded in the conflict of Narnia, in fact, the temporal and spatial skewing is more pronounced, such that by the end of the film, neither is particularly stable.  And this all hinges on the entire series' underlying Christian allegory:  if Aslan is literally God, then it follows that his access to and understanding of time and space in Narnia is not like ours at all, and thus anyone operating under his influence would not be bound by the restrictions of space and time either.  Once the Pevensies meet Aslan and become part of his "world," time and space lose their Earthen focus.  They are meaningless distinctions.
None of this quite excuses the film's somewhat rushed epic narrative or the series' propensity for deus ex machina antics.  But understanding why the narrative is structured in such a manner that time and space just don't make a lot of sense gives us, I think, a better understanding of the film's narrative of child heroes.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia is absolutely embedded in a child's fantasy, albeit a Christian-influenced one.  That fantasy, like a bedtime story, never adheres to novel-length conceptions of time; such stories rush to the conclusion because they are not about the "grand narrative," but about the immediate gratification of the child's fantasy, whether via the characters within the story world or the actual children (or, in my case, adults who miss certain qualities of childhood).

In fact, this may be the thing that makes me love these films so much.  They are, in a sense, free from the constraints of serious storytelling, opting instead for metaphor, blatant allegory, and absolute heroic fantasy mediated through the child.  I watch the films in this series and can't help but become immersed in a world where heroes still exist and can be drug out of the depths of cowardice or made from the spark hiding beneath childhood insecurity.  They're so much about doing good because it is good, and being rewarded for that deed.  Even as an atheist, I can appreciate this sensation, because however realistic one wishes to be, there will always need to be an escape hatch for life, even if it just comes in the form of a children's fantasy movie.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is my escape hatch.


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  1. Have you seen the animated one. Shaun?