By Mark I. Pinsky
Saturday, April 2, 2005
In a marriage of modern mythmakers, Walt Disney Co. is marketing a film based on C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia." And in doing so, Disney will take a page from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on Lewis's novel for children full of Christian allegory, will be released in December.
For Disney, the Christian marketing campaign represents a sharp break with corporate policy. Apart from Walt Disney World's annual Nights of Joy concerts, the film is the company's first undertaking with the religious community. For some evangelical leaders, it represents the effective end of their Disney boycott.
The entertainment giant, which bills itself as a "Magic Kingdom," has carefully avoided religion for most of its history. Yet Disney has launched a 10-month campaign aimed at evangelical Christians to build support for "Narnia," a $100 million, live-action and computer-generated animation feature it is co-producing with Walden Media.
Disney has hired several Christian marketing groups to handle the film, including Motive Marketing, which ran the historic grass-roots efforts for "The Passion." That film has grossed $611 million worldwide and is now in rerelease.
"From a marketing point of view, it could be a marriage made in heaven -- if the movie is any good," said Adele Reinhartz, professor of religion at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
Armand Nicholi, who for decades has taught a Harvard University seminar on C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, agrees. The entertainment world realizes there's a big audience "that embraces a spiritual worldview," he said. How well these groups interact "will determine how successful this marriage is."
Paul Lauer, founder of Motive Marketing, declined to comment on his campaign for "Narnia," apart from confirming that his company is handling it.
"Disney, as the consummate corporate animal, is looking at Paul as the guy who delivered the audience of 'The Passion,' " said Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, a program designed to bring Christian writers and executives into the entertainment industry.
Another Christian company, Grace Hill Media, has also been hired, and several groups have joined the marketing effort. For instance, the Christian Web site www.hollywoodjesus.com launched a special feature on its site recently devoted to "The Chronicles of Narnia."
In the series, published in the 1950s, a lion named Aslan is a Christlike figure who offers himself as a sacrifice to save another character. He is tortured and killed and then resurrected to transform Narnia into a heaven on earth.
There is some skepticism about how Lewis, who is beloved by Christians for his religious commitment and his influential collection of essays, "Mere Christianity," will be treated in popular culture.
In 2001, HarperCollins, the U.S. publishers of the "Narnia" books, issued an internal memo -- revealed by the New York Times -- in which executives urged colleagues to downplay the books' religious dimensions in order to market them to a mainstream audience.
Any efforts to deemphasize the religious aspects of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" film are bound to backfire with Christians, according to Take One's Nicolosi.
"Disney and [co-producer] Walden Media are aware that there's a proprietary sense about 'The Chronicles of Narnia,' " she said. "C.S. Lewis is our guy. They better not take that away from us."
For its part, Disney is trying to play down the Christian marketing approach, noting that it will reach out to the science-fiction and fantasy communities as well.
"We don't want to cater to one fan base over the other or at the expense of another," said Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice president for public relations.
Leaders of the religious boycott, launched with great fanfare in the 1990s, accused Disney of betraying its family-values legacy by providing health benefits to same-sex partners; allowing gay days at theme parks; and producing what they considered to be controversial movies, books and TV programming through Disney subsidiaries.
Financial analysts said the boycott had no effect on Disney's bottom line. The Disney-"Narnia" campaign appears to acknowledge implicitly that the Disney boycott has been a failure.
One of the groups that led the boycott, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, has been included in the early stages of the marketing campaign. Bob Waliszewski, the head of teen ministries for Focus, attended a Disney presentation for "Narnia" at the Burbank studio.
"We have still told families there are disappointing elements at Disney," he said. "We haven't changed that disappointment in Disney. But with Eisner leaving, we're all hoping that Disney will be a better company." Disney Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner plans to retire Sept. 30.
Some evangelical critics are not willing to abandon the boycott.
It won't be over "until the Southern Baptists, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America and others actually decide to call it off," said Bob Knight of Concerned Women for America.
But "the departure of the prickly, anti-Christian Michael Eisner and the advent of the 'Narnia' project might open lines that could lead to a new understanding," he said. "Political realities are catching up to Disney as well, as wiggle room disappears in the culture war."
When the Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, meet this summer in Nashville, they might simply "declare victory and move on," said the Rev. Richard Land, who led the Baptists' boycott.
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the best-known novel in C.S. Lewis's allegorical series "The Chronicles of Narnia," is being made into a movie by Walt Disney Co. with Christian marketing companies handling some of the publicity.
The film will combine live action with computer-generated animation. Disney has launched a 10-month marketing campaign targeting evangelical Christians.