Disney Lionizes Faith, Fantasy in 'Wardrobe'

The walt disney company

Fifty-five years after C.S. Lewis published the “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media have spent more than $250 million bringing the first of his seven hallowed Narnia novels to the big screen.

The live-action adaptation of “Wardrobe” hits theaters today. The filmmakers are hoping it can tap into the lucrative market for big-budget make-believe exposed by the “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” franchises. But in raising the stakes, those films also raised the bar. In a box-office landscape where audiences demand epic grandeur, adolescent drama, and, above all, realism from their fantasies, how is Lewis’ simple bedtime myth to compete?

At an elaborately-choreographed interview session in New York City last month, the film’s director, producer, and six principal actors make their pitch. Whirling through talking points with flashes of genuine charm, the creative team returns more than once to the example set by two particular feats of cinematic wizardry.

Producer Mark Johnson takes the most direct route, naming them nonchalantly.

“I always thought that Narnia was real,” he says. “After the success of films like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter,’ we realized we could do it.”

Others make subtler allusions to the towering shadow cast over the market by Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. Deftly dropped keywords keep the tone of the discussion properly superlative.

“People come into the movie wanting to see four kids and a house, a small British movie,” says director Andrew Adamson. “To me this is a family drama taken to epic proportions.”

Thus, he explains, a single line from Lewis’ first chapter—“This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids”—became the high-strung Nazi bombing episode that opens the film.

“I wanted to wake them up, say, ‘This is a big story,’” Adamson says.

This magnifying approach continued as Adamson visualized the film’s climax. Lewis narrates “Wardrobe”’s final battle in a couple of pages, but Adamson expanded it to a lengthy set piece of generically swashbuckling violence—inspired, he says, by “the battles from ‘Braveheart.’”

These scenes, along with the rest of the film, were shot on the windswept fields and mountains of New Zealand, in an unmistakable attempt to recall the heroic vistas that Jackson found there. As the press materials prominently note, Adamson, like Jackson, is a born-and-bred Kiwi.

“Andrew is from New Zealand and he knew what his country had to offer,” Johnson is quoted as saying in a four-page press release (“New Zealand / New Thinking”) provided at the junket.

ACTING THEIR AGE

The film’s cast follows a similar, if more youth-oriented, script for their responses.

Ten-year-old star Georgie Henley displays “Wardrobe”’s kiddie-flick side, clutching an action figure of herself and giggling about the four inches she grew on set.

“Cheese and jam sandwiches, they were gorgeous,” she chatters, apropos of nothing but the film’s whimsical bona fides. “Grapes and cheese are good, too.”

Children Henley’s age may be the likeliest demographic to make the trip to Narnia, but Disney and Walden are presumably also aiming at young adults pining for Hogwarts. To that end, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell—who portray the elder Pevensie siblings in “Wardrobe”—banter together with enough gawky chic to take on any Weasley.

Moseley says he listened to Lewis’ books on tape as a child, but quickly vouches for their teen cred, recalling how much he dug them on a recent re-reading.

“I was a little bit cool, I was a teenager,” he says. “The issues really spoke to me, even more so.”

Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, admits readily that she “never read the books.” Appropriately enough, the actress who personifies evil in the film strikes a rare discordant note in the on-message morning.

“She’s not a character in that she’s not a human,” Swinton says of her arch-sinister character, the White Witch Jadis. “So it’s a free pass into all sorts of nonsense that doesn’t add up.”

Blithely risking blasphemy, she describes the solemn scene where her character sacrifices anthropomorphic messiah Aslan as “a full-on rock concert of the Iron Maiden variety.”

And Swinton is even less reverent when she talks about her reasons for taking the role. Mostly, she says, she was hoping to help secure funding for other projects she’s planning, like a film based on the life of icy, heroin-addled German chanteuse Nico.



HOLY HYPE

Two days before this interview, the same group chatted with members of the “National, Faith & Hispanic Television Press,” according to an itinerary provided by Disney. It was another round in a two-pronged publicity strategy. Even as Disney and Walden push to make “Wardrobe” the next mega-event in worldly cinematic fantasy, they have begun mobilizing the legions who swear by the Narnia books’ allegorical Christian themes.

Last year, Motive Marketing worked through churches to make Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a smash hit. In an effort to reach out to Narnia’s most devout fans, Disney and Walden hired Motive to employ some of the same faith-based promotion methods for “Wardrobe.” (If you liked seeing your savior being sadistically tortured on screen, you’ll love watching Aslan the magical lion’s death and warm, fuzzy resurrection!)

The two audiences are even getting their own tailor-made soundtracks. Disney will release “Kingdom of Heaven” composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ score in stores next Tuesday. Nearly three months ago, EMI Music’s Christian Music group issued an additional disc of “music inspired by” the film. That album proudly featured pious acts like Jars of Clay and Steven Curtis Chapman—virtual unknowns outside of the contemporary Christian music scene.

But when members of the secular press raise the subject of religion, the interviewees steer clear.

Asked by a pesky reporter about the risk of alienating non-Christians, Johnson allows himself to be distracted by the entrance of Adamson’s toddling child.

“The movie means so much to so many people,” he says after a moment. “I won’t say which head of which studio who’s Jewish said to me, ‘Don’t tell my mother this is a Christian book. This is the most important book in our household.’”

Adamson suggests that the press has overplayed the religion angle.

“I’m worried about why you’re all so obsessed with it!” he says with a laugh. “I always thought we were trying to appeal to all fans of the book, whatever their beliefs… Disney wants everyone to go see this movie.”

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.