It is press day for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the C.S. Lewis children's classic now in theaters, and Disney has unleashed its publicity arsenal: a swanky hotel, the film's stars and director, and a secret weapon -- publicist Jonathan Bock.
Bock's unassuming manner as he mingles belies his might. He's no PR messiah, but he is one of entertainment's top apostles. Movie studios hire Bock to spread the word among faith-based groups to see movies with religious content or a strong moral message. Disney has used him and his Grace Hill Media agency for 20 to 30 of its movies over the past five years, a spokesman says.
The studio has never needed Bock more as it sweats out the opening weekend of "Narnia," its $150 million tent pole for Christmas -- which Disney hopes to establish as a must-see for Christian moviegoers.
Lewis' yarn about four children escaping the World War II London bombings into a magic wardrobe has biblical overtones: A lion king takes the fall for a human sinner and is humiliated and bound in a public death before being resurrected. Ogres and all manner of hell-bound soldiers fight for the bad guys in a war of good versus evil. And temptation leads even the young and pure of heart into darkness.
Some factions have embraced the Scripture aspect over the fantasy, which Lewis, a reconverted Christian, partly crafted over pub sessions with "Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien. (Like "Rings," a year-end blockbuster for three years running, "Narnia" was filmed in New Zealand.) Some secularists have cried for "Narnia" to be removed from mandatory reading lists because they say it is more Sunday school than literature.
"Like any good piece of art, this book has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways," says Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice president of publicity. "I grew up with these books and never thought once that it was (anything) more than just a great fantasy and adventure. People read Christian allegory in 'The Matrix.' I've got to believe if you want to see something, you'll find it, whether it's there or not." "Narnia" has attracted more interest from organized religion than any other Disney film, Rice acknowledges, but he says the spike in attention has come partly from the press. "Eighty-five percent of Americans feel that religion is an important part of their life," he says. "Since when is that now a special-interest group?"