Each December, the public endures new skirmishes in the seemingly endless "Christmas Wars" -- needless battles based on the false proposition that public celebration of the Christian holiday somehow menaces the dignity and survival of the nation's minority religions. This year, one of Hollywood's biggest year-end releases -- Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- has been caught in the seasonal crossfire, inspiring controversy over its Christian symbolism long before its debut this Friday.
Despite Disney's determination to market its high-stakes holiday gamble to the broadest possible audience, Narnia unquestionably contains messages that speak specifically to committed believers. Based on classic children's books by the beloved Christian advocate C.S. Lewis, the first movie in the series features an all-powerful lion, Aslan, (voiced by Liam Neeson) who sacrifices himself for a spoiled child, then comes back to life to defeat the forces of death and evil.
According to Kathleen Kennedy, a veteran producer (Jurassic Park) attached to the project 12 years ago, Disney's qualms over its Christian themes led the studio to drop the idea of a Narnia adaptation. Only the persistence of communications billionaire Philip Anschutz, a fervent evangelical whose Walden Media invested major resources in developing the costly film, persuaded the Disney brass to join him as partners.
Cries of propaganda
This unusual genesis for a Christmas blockbuster has produced widespread suspicion that the finished film will function as religious propaganda. Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounced a statewide reading contest in Florida timed to coincide with public interest in the film. "This whole contest is just totally inappropriate because of the themes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Barry Lynn, the group's director, told the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post. "It is simply a retelling of the story of Christ."
Meanwhile, Philip Pullman, author of best-selling fantasies for young readers, expressed fears about the movie's messages because the original books, in his opinion, contained "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice."
Actually, my own three children (like millions of other kids who have cherished the Narnia books in the past 50 years) never noticed such "prejudice" in the enchanting stories, and related to the tales as timeless confrontations between kindness and cruelty.