The second film based on the Narnia books, "Prince Caspian," roared like Aslan the lion at the box office in its first weekend, grossing an impressive $56 million in theaters, and supplanting "Iron Man" as the most successful movie in America.
Why the continued success of the "Chronicles of Narnia" films? Time movie reviewer Richard Corliss takes a stab at that question, with a unique angle, comparing "Caspian" to "The Golden Compass," the first movie installment of Philip Pullman's dark atheist trilogy which viciously attacked God, Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular.
"Narnia" author C. S. Lewis was a fervent Christian theologian. "Compass" creator Pullman proclaimed his books were about "killing God."
Before any of the "Caspian" box office figures came in, Corliss asked in Time magazine: "Can God make one movie franchise a hit and another a flop?" It's quite clear that "The Golden Compass" flopped badly. It debuted last December to a seriously disappointing first-weekend gross of $25 million, and finished its sorry American run with only $70 million. No sequel is expected for that God-killing trilogy. Meanwhile, "The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe" grossed $291 million in the U.S., and "Prince Caspian" is off to a soaring launch, and the third Narnia installment, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," is already slated for release in May 2010.
But Corliss argued that "Caspian" and "Compass" are alike in that they "did their darnedest to mute elements of religion. Anyone unaware of the books' underlying religious themes would not have become aware of them from the film versions."
Sadly, there's some truth to this argument. Yet unfortunately, Corliss wasn't complaining. "The changes were inevitable and probably for the best. Not many kids beg to be told a ripping yarn with a feline Messiah." He suggested the religious elements were for the adults to ponder, and praise or protest.
This is baloney. Religious elements in films can provide an important foothold for children to understand the religious faith of their parents, and they are worthy of discussion in the public marketplace of ideas, not just the private dinner tables of the faithful.
This is one crucial reason why religious audiences have embraced the Narnia films, and the unspoken answer to the Corliss God question. It is not God playing favorites with the public. It's the market playing favorites with God. There is no public appetite for atheist fantasies about "killing God," but ask Mel Gibson if he can fill a movie theater with a film with explicitly positive Christian themes in it.
Was "Caspian" toned down from the book? Yes, perhaps because there are bureaucrats in Hollywood who still presume that explicit faith is a commercial problem. When the first Narnia film came out late in 2005, Disney publicity executive Dennis Rice rushed to distance the film from Christianity. "We believe we have not made a religious movie," he told the Washington Times. "It's just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature."
That statement surely would have horrified the author. The central theme of the first Narnia book (and the film) was the passion and resurrection of a sacrificial savior. And this is precisely why the book is so famous and beloved.
Religious people will sense a strong religious undercurrent in "Caspian." Even toned down, the plot echoes the Acts of the Apostles, and how those early believers could have faith in Jesus after His ascension to Heaven. The religious themes are re-organized so that only the little girl Lucy sees Aslan and trusts he will eventually aid the children. That's unlike the book, where all four of the Pevensie children, those kings and queens of Narnia - Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy - each meet with Aslan in their walk of faith.
Aslan seems to be a minor character in "Prince Caspian," and the film's major theme becomes the feeling that God is absent in a world gone mad. One of the most memorable lines in the movie has Peter asking why Aslan wouldn't do more to prove his presence, and Lucy rebuts that maybe humans need to do more to prove themselves to Him.
If American audiences want more films like the Narnia series, then they need to prove themselves by turning out at the multiplex. Walt Disney and Walden should be praised for their risk-taking business strategy to please a "niche" market that can turn out in millions across the fruited plain. It doesn't hurt that "Prince Caspian" is a rollicking good yarn.