Monday, January 09, 2006

Narnia vs. Middle-Earth.

After making one of the biggest mistakes in company history by opting not to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Walt Disney Pictures would have been hard-pressed to make up for it, had it not been for the existence of another seminal work of fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia. Comparisons between the two sagas are inevitable, given the time of publishing, the academic background of the writers and of course the subject matter. In my humble opinion, it's still like comparing apples to oranges. That said, the Narnia books actually lend themselves more easily to film adaptation.

First of all, each book is self-contained. Instead of having to shell out $300 million on a trilogy and then spend the next three years in devout prayer to their respective deities, as the New Line executives undoubtedly did, the Disney execs have the luxury of taking things one film at a time. They don't have to venture all of their eggs in the proverbial basket.

Second, Lewis did not share Tolkien's penchant for superfluous characters (e.g. Tom Bombadil, Beregond and Erkenbrand, to name a few of the ludicrous, throwaway characters that pop up repeatedly throughout the books, most of whom Peter Jackson rightly dispensed with in his epic adapatation). Casting, therefore, is simplified. Not only that, but as opposed to casting EIGHT mainstays (the Fellowship of the Ring), the crew only faces the challenge of casting four.

And yet...Disney still manages to drop the ball on a number of occasions.

The story is still pretty much as Lewis told it: four British children (William Moseley, Anne Popplewell, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) are shipped off to the English countryside by their mother in the wake of Nazi bombings of London. While playing hide-and-go-seek, one of them stumbles on a magical wardrobe that takes her to another land. Eventually they all find there way through into a magical kingdom which they have been prophesied to save from the Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who has kept the country in perpetual winter for the last century. With the help of the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the true king of Narnia, they wage a just war on Jadis and...well you'll just have to watch the movie to see how things turn out.

The problem is the sparse character development. This is attributable both to the script and to the actors who deliver it. The four Pevensie children are terribly cast, with the possible exception of Moseley, who just barely pulls of a decent performance as Peter (but just barely). Their acting is self-conscious and monotonous, especially the two girls. One can forgive Henley, the seven-year-old who plays Lucy, but you wonder what excuse Popplewell, who plays Susan, has to offer.

The effects are certainly on par with any of the Rings movies, which figures given that a lot of the VFX team worked on those very movies. Also, rather than just go with one F/X outfit, Disney hired three, according to the end credits: Rhythm & Hues (Oscar winners for Babe), Sony Pictures Imageworks (Oscar winners for Spider-Man 2), and ILM (Oscar winners for just about every big effects movie made in the 1980s and the early 1990s). The problem is certainly not with the effects, no.

The thing is that, as impressively staged as the big battle sequence at the end is, it feels ultimately inconsequential. Let's face it, even without its fifty-year reputation, this is not the kind of movie where the outcome of the battle is in any doubt. And in any event, one is not really sure if one should care what happens to the protagonists, considering that the audience knows none of them except for Peter and Edmund. The centaur who rides/runs into battle next to Peter and shows off some cool swordfighting moves does get some screen time before the grand throw down, but just about zero development.

And it is here that the movie stumbles something awful. By the time the big battle sequences come around in the LOTR movies (one in The Two Towers, two in The Return of the King) the audience is quite familiar with not just one but several of the characters who are off to what could well be their deaths (and in some cases prove to be just that). In short, Peter Jackson meticulously developed characters he felt sure the audience could care for, even the less likeable ones. He trimmed away several of Tolkien's original creations so that he could make it easier for the audience to connect with the principal cast. He crafted a masterful script from Tolkien's prose and commanded memorable performances from just about every one of his actors, even the often-annoying Elijah Wood.

Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson was not saddled with any such problems making this movie. All he had to do was show Narnia through the eyes of four principal characters and yet, for all his mastery of digital characters, he is completely inept at coaxing decent performances out of his flesh-and-blood actors. Whereas LOTR plays like Jackson's love anthem to Tolkien's magnum opus, Adamson's film seems to scream "I just work here." He is merely a hired gun, who seems to have brought aboard only for his magic touch with pixels and his shared nationality with a genius that Disney once snubbed.

Flaws notwithstanding, Narnia is still watchable, for as long as one does not expect the second coming of The Lord of the Rings. The films are simply not in the same league. And, there's something gratifying about having it all wrap up in one film.

Now that Disney's experienced moderate success with this film, they should weigh what they could have done better and use to their advantage the fact that they can make the next film from scratch. One thing they should probably remember, though, is not to hire someone just because he's a Kiwi CGI whiz.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Some Wishes for the New Year

2006 isn't even a week old, so there's a lot to look forward to, I think. I thought of the things I wanted to happen this year, and came up with a fairly short but, in my opinion, nonetheless comprehensive list. Some of the things on this list are things that I can make happen (but which I consider wishes anyway) but most of them are things that are in the hands of God or other men and women.

1. I dearly wish for my wife Theia's success in the bar exams she took last year. From experience I know what an ordeal it can be to take the damn thing more than once; it's a fate I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, much less the woman I love more than any other in the world. On top of that, I know what a bumpy road it's been for her to even get around to taking the bar, the sacrifices, the false starts, and the frustration. If she doesn't necessarily deserve it intellectually (and I feel that she does), she certainly does karmically.

2. I wish for more economic growth, and if at all possible, zero political turmoil. I might as well ask for the moon, but there it is. I'm not a fan of any of the protagonists in the political scene right now, but I have to say it doesn't look as though the economy is on the verge of imploding, like it was when Erap was in charge, so although there are admittedly issues of truth still floating about, I'd rather we just move forward. Someday the people who lied and cheated (ALL of them, and not just the ones caught on tape) will be held accountable, but I'd rather we not suffer for it.

3. A promotion. Pretty much speaks for itself, doesn't it?

4. I want to lose weight, and in the right places. I loved the days when I cut a nice, slim figure at 175 lbs. At 6'0, with my frame, that was the perfect weight for me. Now it's a struggle to fit into my freaking pants. I hate it. I want to get this fat off and keep it off, damn it.

5. I wish for better movies this year. On the one hand, it saves me a bundle when I don't go out to see every other thing in the malls, but movies are something I love, and I'd hate to see the art form deteriorate into nothing. I can only watch old DVDs so many times after all.

6. I wish for the DOJ's success in prosecuting the US Marines who raped that girl in Olongapo. The fact that they're using the old "consensual sex" argument really just seals it. Those bastards did it, and if they get away with it, justice will have been raped as well.

7. I wish for my son's success in whatever school we enroll him in. I hope he gets along with other kids and learns how to read and add. He's a really bright kid, but I don't want to pressure him into being some kind of achiever. I hope school is something that agrees with him.

And we end at seven. Well, I'm not that particular about round numbers, given that I really can't think of anything else I really wish for, other, than, well, peace and prosperity for my family and friends. And for things to be a little less insane than they usually are...