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Animation and allegory

ANAND PARTHASARATHY

The first part of "The Chronicles of Narnia" is a brisk, inventive tale that leads magically into C.S. Lewis's fantasy world.



IMAGINATIVE MIX: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe combines live action with computer-generated graphics and special effects. An Indian team of animators in Mumbai did the core work.

A 55-year old children's fantasy might seem like an unlikely candidate from which to craft a big budget movie — and a lucrative franchise. But Disney's latest product (to be released here between January and February) reprises the successful course followed by the three-part filming of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" saga in more ways than one.

For a start it falls back on C. S. Lewis, scholar and critic who taught at Oxford University in the U.K., at the same time as Tolkien. It takes up the first of seven stories that Lewis wrote for children in the 1950s — he called them "The Chronicles of Narnia" — and lavishes $150 millions on turning it ("The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe") into an imaginative mix of live action, computer-generated animation and special effects.

For family audiences

The result is as brisk, inventive fantasy for family audiences, though — as in the latest Harry Potter film — the makers seem to be testing the envelope that separates a film made for kids and one aimed more lucratively at teens and twenties.

Prof. Lewis was an unlikely author of juvenile literature — until one realises that the Narnia Chronicles has more than one subtext. Briefly told, the first book in the cycle is set in Britain during World War II — when the London bombing blitz by the Germans was at its height. The four children of the Pevensie family — older kids Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), and the two siblings Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are sent to the countryside to stay out the war with an elderly friend, Prof. Kirke (Jim Broadbent).

While playing hide and seek, they wander into a wardrobe that magically leads them to the wintry world of Narnia. It is ruled by the tyrannical White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton), who has banished Christmas and condemned Narnia to 100 years of winter. Is she an allegory for Hitler? Could be.

The younger boy Edmund succumbs to the unlimited supply of sweets offered by the White Witch and becomes her prisoner. To rescue him — and Narnia — the kids have to seek the help of the land's `underground' resistance: Mr Tumnus, the Faun, Mr and Mrs Beaver... and above all the towering lion, Aslan.

This magnificent creature ( voice by Liam Neeson) has to make the ultimate sacrifice — and die a grisly death to save Edmund. Only, this is a children's story so he is `resurrected' by some prompt magic and leads a climactic battle between the evil witch and an army of mythological creatures. This has led many critics to see in Aslan, an allegory for Christ and to argue that C.S. Lewis had in fact concocted a palatable Bible story for kids.

Be that as it may, Aslan is the creative centrepiece of the film. And interestingly, much of the work to conjure up the lion — one of the few characters who are completely computer-generated — was done in Mumbai by a 50-strong team of young Indian animators at the studios of Rhythm & Hues India.

The parent company in California was the lead visual effects facility for the film and Sesha Prasad, Digital Production Manager at its India end, told The Hindu in a special briefing, that the team here worked for over 18 months, to help craft the majority of the battle scenes and the photo-realistic Aslan as well as several hundred "FX" shots throughout the movie. "Indian compositors had to work painstakingly (on the riders)... from shots of horses and [then] substitute the computer-generated upper halves. This was a very important phase, as a lot of characters were half live, half computer-generated."

Prasad says this is the first time such a large-scale and high-profile project has been successfully executed in India. R&H India is already working on some upcoming Hollywood products — and some of their work will fuel films in 2006 including "Superman Returns," "Garfield - 2" and the third instalment of "The Fast and The Furious."

As kids gasp at the stunning close-ups of Aslan's mane, they may have little time to bother about any sublime message that "The Chronicles of Narnia" might offer. But many adults in the audience might just get a kick from the realisation that Disney's latest kid-pic might legitimately sport, albeit in a small way, a `Made in India' label.

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