Movies That Ruined My Childhood: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1979).
I guess growing up Catholic, I should have been used to gory morality fables. I was not ready for this animated Christian fiasco.
The odd thing about growing up Catholic is that you get shielded from all of the tiniest things as a kid, but the obviously scarring stuff is fair game. All sorts of euphemisms and double-speak keep you from thinking about your personal plumbing, but nobody bats an eye about having a million pictures of a guy bleeding from a head wound and four radical piercings staring at you from every wall. My grandmother kept a picture of a serene looking Virgin Mary…with her heart outside of her rib cage, run through with a sword. That was devotional! If a public school teacher promised you an eternity in Hell, lavishly described, he’d be fired. A Sunday School teacher does that and gets a high five. The priorities seem a bit off when it comes to what the Church exposed kids to.*
So, I have to say it was odd that what many consider an innocuous kids special on CBS gave me the heebie jeebies as a kid. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe felt (and looked) alien. The cheapness of the animation, coupled with the “uncanny valley” shoddiness of the character models were unsettling. The film’s frank fascination with ritual sacrifice was certainly upsetting. Despite seeing a beat-to-a-pulp Jesus every day of my life, the same themes expressed in a cartoon were troubling. Let’s take a trip to cut-rate Narnia and show you what I mean.
*Take that unintentional double-entendre for what its worth.
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1979).
Four British children visiting their mysterious uncle discover a portal to another world in an old wardrobe. In this fantasy land of Narnia, eternal winter has been imposed by the White Witch, who subjugates the animal and mythical residents. The four children unknowingly fulfill a prophecy that humans, “the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve,” will return to Narnia and help end the Witches reign and restore the regal lion king Aslan to power.
This animated TV special is ugly. The animation is rough, stilted, and cheap. The character models themselves are hideous. Sure, I can see how the Witch and her ghoulies are supposed to look horrendous – and they do, especially her manservant, who looks like the evil little S.O.B. from Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye. But the good guys? Is there some particular reason lovable Mr. Tumnus looks like a steamroller smashed The Joker and a goat together, and the results got up and mugged Dr. Who for his scarf? The children are especially unpleasant to look at, as the animators appeared to have trouble making a smiling face that doesn’t look like it’s being glimpsed in a fun house mirror.
Growing up, I never really paid much attention to the Narnia books. I tore through Tolkien and adored the fantasy of Lloyd Alexander. If it had fantasy or mythology mixed into it, I was an avid fan…even when it was terror fuel like Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Narnia was just too insipid. The Christian allusions are not in the least subtle; Lewis’ fiction tended to club the reader over the head with obvious analogies. Except for The Screwtape Letters, which he wrote for adults, he’s heavy handed and patronizing, even if you’re a receptive audience for Christian platitudes as I was as a child. Even with a slimmed down, general audience overhaul, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe still has the whiff of patronage. It’s actually better than the books as CBS wisely focused on the adventure aspects, but nobody is going to mistake this cartoon for Rankin/Bass’ magisterial The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings animated specials.
For all of its hand holding when it came to social messages, the special didn’t shy away from the sordid elements of the story. Condensing and simplifying the Passion narrative made it real in a way to me as a kid that a million Bible verses never could. What did I care for the avarice and duplicity of the Sandhedrin? A wicked witch who loved cruelty and vanity, now that meant something to me. Who the heck was Judas that I should care if he was a dirt-bag? Edwin making Grinch faces while he deliberately sold out his sister and her new pal Aslan, that was some real wickedness. Finally, it’s hard to get too worked up over Jesus getting a pretty raw deal: he’s god and I know he makes it out OK at the end since I get cool stuff on Easter. Aslan…well he gets it pretty raw too, and I don’t have any assurances that he’s gonna be handing out chocolate eggs after the White Witch meticulously humiliates and tortures him in front of our eyes. All in all, another case of misplaced priorities on what is actually scary for a kid.
I’m a bit shocked to discover that this special was directed, produced, and partially written by Bill Melendez. He may not be a household name like Walt Disney, but he should be. Listen to the list of stuff he brought to children: all of the animated Peanuts classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin,Charlie Brown; both of the worthwhile Garfield TV specials (Here Comes Garfield, Garfield on the Town); Frosty Returns. He helped animate classics from Dumbo to Daffy Duck, and produced other notable cartoon characters in specials such as Babar, Cathy, and Betty Boop. It would have been virtually impossible to grow up in America and not have your childhood filled with fond memories of cartoons made by Bill Melendez. And then he went ahead and created this atrocity!
Fit to be Tied.
So. At the end of the day, a very talented man and a beloved children’s fantasy series came together in the late 70’s to make a lion snuff film full of ghastly animation. It’s a poor adaptation, just from the standpoint of polish and presentation: it’s ugly, the voice acting is tinny and trite, and the story has pacing issues. From a philosophical standpoint, its a nightmare of bad ideas expressed glibly.
From an entertainment perspective, it fundamentally does not work. The adventure stuff is second-rate, and the Christian narrative is cutting it off at the knees at every turn. I don’t get to identify with the kids because they’re just stage props for a ham-fisted Christ-figure who solves all of the problems with a paternalistic toss of his mane.
The only place I’m invited into the story is to share the horror and sadness of the kids as they watch abject cruelty. Gee, golly, that sounds like fun and all…but maybe I’ll just skip this and fire up “It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown” instead. At least that show had good, solid morals.