Have you got a spare eight hours?
Never mind the quality, feel the length: the three fantasy films under review - King Kong, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Howl's Moving Castle - clock in at a total of nearly eight hours. Close to a full day at the office. And still some want more: internet reviewer Harry Knowles thinks that Disney is being parsimonious in offering only two and a half hours of the Narnia film; a Lord of the Rings nut, he wants another hour, presumably so the film can go as saggy with epilogues and overkill as Return of the King did.
Blame LOTR for those expectations and for Peter Jackson's own slick, impressive, bloated King Kong, a mega-film about mega-fauna. The justly loved 1933 original was a film about film-making, which makes this self-conscious remake a film about a film about films. Jack Black has said that he based his characterisation of Carl Denham, now a mix of maverick film-maker and swindler, on Orson Welles (if he meant that, he's doing Welles a major disservice), and in a new scene, the wily Denham has to present a do-or-die pitch to his backers in New York -- it's reminiscent of the much-mythologised moment when Jackson and Fran Walsh shopped their LOTR plans around Hollywood, looking for an 11th-hour funder. Like Denham, they managed to win a studio over. Later, when Denham has Kong in chains for a New York premiere before a sold-out crowd, one of those backers congratulates him: "You better get used to it." And so Jackson himself has. (At that same premiere, Denham presents a fake Ann Darrow to the New York crowd, who know no better. The soundtrack composer Howard Shore has a cameo as an orchestra conductor in that scene - curiously, Jackson would replace Shore sometime after, but he stays in the movie like an ersatz Darrow.)
Although the effects are brilliantly realised and the movie is well-made, there isn't much you can do with a film about a giant, angry gorilla who loves a half-undressed woman other than wonder what it's supposed to mean. The original has supported interpretations ranging from the popular, plausible one about race fear and indictments of imperialism to a Freudian reading of it all being a dream of Denham's (we enter Skull Island, get it?) to a looser analogy about the Depression and worker resentment. In any case, reality blows a fuse and the repressed bursts through. Part of the reason the original has so much baggage is in the shadowy, jerky, nightmare quality of it - it feels dreamt and cryptic; it urges you to figure it out. But when you make your film nearly twice as long, and replace the rougher look of the original with smooth digital effects, you are making your hidden themes big and clear and giving the audience less to do. Here, two crew members have a book-club conversation about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - which is only designed to give Jackson, Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens a chance to try to persuade us that they've also been mulling over subtext and interpretation. Anyway, that's the wrong book: as others have said, Moby Dick is the better parallel (actually, there's a tattooed Maori on board in Jackson's Kong who might point in that direction).
There's no challenge in guessing what the first of C S Lewis's Narnia stories is really about. Incarnation, death, resurrection - the Christian story, but set within (and hardly anyone comments on this) a lovely pagan England of wood spirits and talking animals, not unlike that of The Wind in the Willows. Even though the plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a thin screen stretched over the Christian message, the delivery of the message isn't didactic or aggressive - if anything, it just seems like a weird thing to encounter in corporate children's entertainment in 2005. The new film by Andrew Son of Adam - sorry, Adamson - gets some things right: the psychology of the four children rings true (a big part of this story is the appeal to kids of dressing up as knights, kings, queens), there are great performances by Tilda Swinton (the witch) and James McAvoy (the faun, Mr Tumnus) and the early scenes in Narnia have real promise. It gets ponderous soon, though, and, disappointingly for a fantasy, its world doesn't feel complete. The world of Kong is so obsessively realised that its makers had to create a pseudo-encyclopedia to pour in all the creatures they didn't use - by contrast, there is nothing in Narnia. Where is every-body? At one point, the witch's wolves report that the children are at the beavers' house. Yes, the beavers: the entire land contains just one pair of them.
Lewis's values were old-fashioned, but they weren't the values of the 1940s - more the 1140s. The thing is medieval, and besides being Christ, the wise, dull Aslan is also Richard the Lionheart in the Robin Hood stories: rumoured and nearly imminent. That suspense is missing in this film, but much of the drama is fumbled anyway. Also, a sense of wonder is missing in both Lion and Kong, and I'm not sure whose jadedness that is - the film-makers or us. More than a decade ago, in the ancestor of these pictures, Jurassic Park, our first sight of the dinosaurs came just as Sam Neill's palaeontologist saw them; his jaw dropped, he was plainly moved. In Kong, Denham and his crew see a herd of brontosauruses and they could be a herd of cows for all the emotion they display. Similarly, in Lion, one of the boys rides a unicorn near the end - and no one even comments on it.
Mostly, Adamson has done a cautious, competent job. It's not as imaginative as it could be - he has filmed the book, but he hasn't adapted it. Mind you, there isn't much room to move when you answer to a combo of Disney, Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham and Walden Media, Disney's business partner and an outlet for Christian-right billionaire Philip Anschutz. For true imaginative daring, try the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who has adapted Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle without treating it as an inviolate text. This feature-length animation is perfectly pitched, moving seamlessly between realism and surrealism. The storyline is unpredictable, and there is a dreamlike haze that you don't find in Jackson and Adamson's films: a walking castle emerges from fog, passing through a valley; characters fly without warning; the same door opens onto different places.
Howl is a gifted, petulant young wizard who refuses to join the war event in an imaginary kingdom (like Lewis's novel, Jones's was influenced by the trauma of the Blitz, but she was closer in age to Lewis's characters). Sophie is an ordinary girl who crosses a witch and is turned into an old woman. Soon, it's attack of the crones. Appearances matter, but appearances often shift, as observers of Miyazaki know. As this is deeply rooted in European fairytale traditions, it drops the Japanese animism that made Spirited Away so rich, apart from one cranky fire demon (voiced by a hilarious Billy Crystal). At two hours, it's the shortest of the three films here, but also the most complex - not just in its plot, but in its emotions. Lion can be excused - it's for kids - but Kong doesn't have any grown-up emotions within its three hours. By contrast, in his new film, the 64-year-old Miyazaki gets right inside the terror and dread - and, sometimes, comfort and pleasure - of getting old.