How to Enjoy a Dubiously Progressive Film

I should probably preface this post with an admission: I absolutely loved The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Despite the abysmally low expectations set by the first Narnia attempt, I sat through Caspian in a state of gleeful enthrallment. And from an entertainment perspective, it was a surprisingly great movie: the landscape was crafted with Peter-Jackson-level expertise, the Pevensie children have become less insufferably whiny, and the sexual tension between characters Susan Pevensie and Prince Caspian was cringe-inducingly hilarious.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the original story, Prince Caspian weaves the tale of the Pevensie children’s return to Narnia after The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Since their last visit, over a thousand years have passed in Narnia and things have gotten really rough: a neighboring land has taken over everything, and all Narnians have been killed or driven into hiding. Enter attractive yet bizarrely accented Prince Caspian, the exiled heir to the throne—and Narnia’s only hope. Essentially, magical hijinks and epic battles ensue as good battles evil for power over Narnia.

Overall, Caspian is a satisfying fantasy adventure--which is not to say that the film is even close to being flawless—there were many moments when it veered into being ridiculously overwrought, unintentionally inspiring several hearty guffaws. Like the first moment that Aslan appears, beams of light triumphantly shooting out of his mane, in a blatant "Thank God! It’s Jesus!" moment. (C.S. Lewis’s original Narnia stories were modeled after Christian parables, with Aslan the lion serving as an obvious Jesus figure).

The movie versions of the tales are produced by Walden Media, financed by notoriously conservative Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz. Which had me, a staunch athiest, pseudo-maliciously poised to pounce on any thinly-veiled attempts at conversion. Of which there were surprisingly few. Most of what could be associated with a religious purpose was ambiguous. For example, a scene in which a river swells into the shape of a giant man, who then swallows the enemy army, is simultaneously a reference to the parting of the red seas and a harmless demonstration of cool Narnian magic.

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Perhaps more problematic than any of the overt references to Christianity are the subtler ones. As Dana Stevens puts it in Slate’s Spoiler Special Podcast on Prince Caspian, "The end of this movie to me essentially seems like a brief on behalf of religious warfare… it’s all about being on the righteous side, getting God on your side. Everyone on the wrong side… basically dies horribly, and yet it’s a happy ending for the movie. And there’s something about that, as a kid’s movie, that just leave me with a queasy feeling." While it’s probably true that any kids that see this movie won’t actually go home and commit acts of religious violence, the condoned brutality of Team Aslan is undeniably distasteful.

Yet in my opinion, the most troubling aspect of the entire movie was not the underlying religious themes, but the seemingly ignorant, intolerant representations of race: black people only appear in the movie as frighteningly huge, burly, animalistic centaurs. A dubious choice at best, and at worst it’s an insidious perpetuation of the idea that people with darker skin are somehow primitive, savage, and less-human. Again, maybe not the best thing to blindly feed young minds.

Everyone that I told these complaints to, however, admonished me for reading too much into the film; it’s true that while watching the movie, I was so into it that I tended to mentally gloss over any potentially less-than-correct moments. Which in and of itself is the thing about the movie that leaves me feeling uncomfortably bothered—How do you rectify enjoyment with that nagging little thought that you’re being less-than-progressive? I’m not entirely sure, but hopefully this post will help.