Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Dr. Vector spoils Narnia and Kong

I saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a few weeks ago, and I've been saving up a review. Here's the short version: it plods. It's visually gorgeous and faithful to the book and it plods. It's got no momentum. It never catches fire. The only part where the actors seem to be having any fun is the end battle. I'm sure the kids in the audience were having the time of their lives, but as an adult I kept thinking...

(this ain't fair, but I thought it anyway)

...this is no Lord of the Rings.

Each high watermark movie, for better or worse, raises the bar for all those that come after. In the "Ask the Critic" section in Entertainment Weekly, someone once opined that the vapid relentlessness of modern action movies could be traced back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg and Lucas didn't intend to destroy the pace, plot, and characterization common to pre-1980s movies (at least, I don't think they did), but it happened. Star Wars and Indiana Jones pushed the outer edge of the envelope for action and excitement in movies, but that extreme tail became the mean, or maybe even the lower end, of the new distribution. And now we have to suffer through crap like Armageddon.

Now, I'm not arguing that there is anything fair or right about that phenomenon. It's...well, it's evolution. Allosaurids didn't survive alongside tyrannosaurids. Draw your own conclusions.

I'm sure it's possible to make a great fantasy movie that doesn't suffer by comparison to LOTR. One obvious way to do that would be to do one in a different mold. But Narnia ain't it. The book is pretty thin, so the filmmakers had quite a bit of freedom to imagine the world. As far as I'm concerned, they failed twice. First, they didn't imagine enough. Not to keep beating a dead centaur, but the movie has no pulse. I'm not saying they should have cut out pieces of the book and pasted in their own creations. I'm saying there is such a thing as pace. Imagination in the speed and emphasis of the storytelling. It's one reason Shakespeare is still in business. It's one of the things Peter Jackson did right with LOTR--told Tolkien's stories with the right speed-ups and slow-downs to make them breathe on screen. Narnia sort of wheezes.

The filmmaker's second failing was in making the movie too LOTR-esque, not in pacing, but in everything else. When you watch it, it feels like watching an LOTR movie, only boring. I can't say exactly what the fimmakers should have done to give the film it's own visual identity, but from my familiarity with the films of Ridley Scott and David Fincher, to name a couple, I am sure that there is such a thing as visual identity and that it can be imprinted on--or developed within--a movie.

So. I've had this bit in my head for a few weeks. About how Narnia would be better movie if I couldn't see LOTR standing behind it, looking over its shoulder. Here's what I didn't expect: the same thing is true of Kong.

It's true in a different way. Last spring I saw Constantine and I enjoyed it. I said as much to Mike Taylor, and he said a curious thing. That he'd been impressed by fewer movies since seeing The Return of the King, since it was both visually outstanding and Important. You know, it was About Stuff. Most movies are either one or the other, and rarely do either very well.

Kong is visually outstanding, no doubt. But it's not about very much.

As with Narnia, it's an unfair comparison. Kong isn't supposed to be in the same league as LOTR. It's not supposed to be About Stuff. It's about lost islands, primitive rituals, dinosaurs, and a giant ape that fights biplanes.

But still. The whole time I was watching it, I had the most bizarre sensation. My eyes were just as entertained as when I'd seen LOTR, but my heart was moved scarcely at all. It was like watching LOTR with the bones taken out.

All right, enough with the Harold Bloom business. Here's the lowdown: Narnia will hold up just as well on video, maybe better. If you've only got eight bucks to blow on a movie this holiday, go watch King Kong open up a Brobdingnagian Thunder Cup of ball-stomp on three tyrannosaurs--at once.

And try not to think about Return of the King.

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