The Summer Scorecard

1. This is the kind of issue my colleague Bob Rehak thinks about so very well, but I was really struck watching Prince Caspian at how poorly the WETA house style serves that film. The script was pretty decent considering that of Lewis’ four “core” Narnia stories, I would flag Prince Caspian as the one with the biggest storytelling issues in terms of adaptability to a film. The book starts slow, spending a much longer time in the ruins of Cair Paravel, and then proceeds into an extended flashback. There’s only a bit of dramatic tension among the protagonists, early on, when Lucy can see Aslan and the others cannot. Caspian and the Pevensies only meet late in the story, and have few strong interactions. There’s only one major battle with a few offstage conflicts. The adaptation shortens the opening, sharpens the dramatic tension, adds a major battle sequence and tries to give Peter and Susan more of a dramatic arc (largely at the cost of making Peter a pouty whiner, unfortunately).

This is all fine, but WETA’s visuals end up making Prince Caspian feel like a cadet version of Lord of the Rings and I almost think that would have happened even if there never had been a Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings. Narnia somehow seems to me to need a wispier, less pseudorealist style, to look more earnestly fairy-tale.

I remember my viscerally negative reaction to seeing Disney’s The Black Cauldron in 1985 as a college student. Before I had any reaction to the (numerous) storytelling failures in the film, there was the fundamental issue that the cherubic roundedness of the Disney house style was simply and fundamentally the wrong choice for Lloyd Alexander’s Welsh-inspired fantasies.

WETA’s work is not technological destiny. The visual aesthetics found in digital games suggest the range of what’s possible: if you can have Okami, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft, you can have satyrs, centaurs and dryads who don’t look like they wandered over from a forgotten corner of Middle-Earth and took a left-turn at Lantern Waste.

2) Speaking of works that demonstrate what’s visually possible, Speed Racer deserves a lot more critical appreciation than what it’s garnered so far. I’m not a huge fan of the original cartoon, but I enjoyed the film a lot. The visuals alone are very interesting (and yes, they’ll probably give you a headache in parts) but the film is also just a lot of fun. Chris Sims is perfectly right by calling out the sheer awesomeness of a film that features Racer X punching an upside-down Viking racecar driver. The entire cross-country race in the middle of the film is great, in fact, full of interesting images and great action sequences. Heck, I even found Spridel and Chim-Chim amusing, which is a wholly new sensation in my life. Yes, the film could use some further editing: snip out one or two bits of Moms Racer talking about how proud she is of Speed and a few other character bits, maybe, to shave it to two hours or under.

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5 Responses to The Summer Scorecard

  1. Narnia somehow seems to me to need a wispier, less pseudorealist style, to look more earnestly fairy-tale.

    This puts it very well, Tim. I haven’t seen Prince Caspian yet, and I’m sure I will eventually–I am a fantasy geek, after all–but I don’t expect that anything the film does for me will differ from what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did for me: it entertained, but did not impress. And I think the greatest of the several reasons why that it didn’t was simply the look of it, and the tone set by that look. The Narnia books are fundamentally a kind of pastoral (all the better for their heavily allegorical and, as you say, “fairy-tale”-style plots), and a visually epic style just runs counter to that.

    Incidentally, which do you consider to be the four “core” Narnia books? I assume you’re leaving out The Horse and His Boy, but which others?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Lion, Witch & Wardrobe
    Prince Caspian
    Voyage of the Dawn Treader
    Silver Chair

    Horse and His Boy is clearly a side tale.
    Magician’s Nephew, despite its “origin story”, reads largely as the same.
    Last Battle is, well, what it is. If the first four books are made into movies, I’m not sure they’re going to make the L.B. even if all four have been commercial successes.

  3. Doug says:

    And how annoying is it that all the sets now make Magician’s Nephew the first book? Sure, origins and all that, but it’s hardly the proper introduction to Narnia. Bring us in through the wardrobe or don’t do it at all.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I agree: there is no way it should be read first.

  5. Bob Rehak says:

    Tim: I was late in seeing your post, and don’t have much to add specifically about the Narnia film series, as I haven’t seen either of the first two installments. I’m a big lover of the books, though, and am probably avoiding the movie adaptations on the basis of what trailers & behind-the-scenes info reveal: precisely the mismatch you describe between Narnia’s overall “world aesthetic” in the books versus how the films have been mounted.

    Unlike you, I do think the Narnia films directly borrow their logic of representation from that established in the LOTR films; WETA’s involvement suggests that the underlying FX pipeline, from design and previz to final rendering and editing, is being used pretty much unchanged. This makes perfect industrial sense — once you’ve built an assembly line, why make an entirely new one rather than simply plugging new widgets into the old line? But I agree that it’s a detriment to a fictional world that requires a different kind of vision. And your reference to the range of stylization displayed in videogames is dead on.

    As for Speed Racer — I wanted to like it; I’m one of the few who enjoyed all three parts of the Matrix trilogy (albeit for different reasons). But I found it maddeningly slow and clumsy, despite — or maybe because of — the insane visual pyrotechnics being thrown onscreen. The film’s most interesting and problematic tic for me was not the much-commented-on and admittedly spectacular race sequences, but the overuse of pans and wipes (Racer X’s head moves across screen right, revealing another scene with people talking, who then rotate screen left, revealing Racer X in closeup again). This came across as an attempt at a new kind of cinematographic grammar, a way of eliminating hard cuts and keeping the visual action and storytelling “continuous” (a longtime obsession of the Wachowskis’, dating back to bullet time in the first Matrix). But it reminded me most strongly of Ang Lee’s misbegotten Hulk, which foregrounded one order of screen illusion (the big green giant) while working more radically (if subtly) in another, those tricky scene transitions patterned on comic book panels. In both cases, arguably films ahead of their time; but in both cases, unsuccessful *as films*, no matter how successful as technology tests.

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