Narnia. Maybe you've read the books, seven in all, in C.S. Lewis' fantasy about the enchanted universe lurking behind that wardrobe in the attic. Likely you've seen
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
, the 2005 and 2008 films based on the first two chronicles of the Pevensie children and their encounters with Jadis the White Witch, Miraz the Dark King and Aslan, lion of God.
Now you can visit "Chronicles of Narnia: The Exhibition" - a jumble of Narniana that includes Lewis' personal effects as well as glittering props and sumptuous costumes from the films - at the Franklin, the establishment formerly known as the Franklin Institute.
As immersive stagecraft, "Narnia" succeeds in transporting the visitor from the science and technology center through the armoire and into the Narniaverse where it is "always winter . . . but never . . . Christmas," as Lucy Pevensie observes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Faux snow greets the visitor, as do the faces of Tumnus the faun and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. (No mention is made of the stories' religious-allegorical component, which could have been an occasion to consider science and faith.)
As learning experience, however, the exhibition is less edifying.
A traveling show, it was designed by the Becker Group, which bills itself as a creator of "marketing experiences," often for shopping malls. It takes care to use "Narnia" as an occasion to connect the White Witch's permanently wintry world with the impact of climate on civilization. Similarly, a plaque notes that C.S. Lewis' readings of Einstein inspired the writer to imagine Narnia, where time moves at a different rate than on Earth. Politely applaud the attempt to furnish the science that informs this theme-park installation.
But Narnia's relation to climate change and relativity are, at best, footnotes to this dramatically produced experience accompanied by the orchestral themes from the films. How many 12-year-olds absorbed in a story read the footnotes? The two I accompanied on the exhibition's opening weekend were preoccupied with sitting on the White Witch's frozen throne, holding prop swords (surprisingly heavy) and hefting the prop armor (even heavier). They skipped the footnotes about Narnia's scientific implications.
At $18.50 for a student ticket ($17.50 for children 4 to 11, $22.25 for adults), which admits the visitor to the Franklin's permanent collection, "Narnia: The Exhibition" is about twice the cost of a movie ticket, $3.50 more than a DVD of Lion, Witch or Prince Caspian, and $11.20 less than a seven-volume boxed set of the books in paperback.
A cynic could view "Narnia: The Exhibition" - underwritten by Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, producers of the well-received films - as an elaborate trailer for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third film in the series, scheduled for release in 2010. Indeed, before leaving the exhibition - in a room flanked by statues of mighty centaurs and urns overflowing with gilt peacock feathers - a screen reminds visitors of the forthcoming feature. (The adjacent gift shop sells Narniana, tchotchkes, books and DVDs. Prince Caspian came out on DVD Tuesday.)
A pragmatist could see the show as a doorbuster, a marquee attraction that gets visitors inside to support the institution's mission of encouraging the study of science and technology, which includes its mounting of the exhibition "Galileo," which will follow "Narnia" in April.
Programming an institution is always a balance "between margin and mission," says Dennis Wint, the Franklin's president and CEO. In that view, this crowd-pleaser is to the Franklin what The Nutcracker is to the Pennsylvania Ballet - a show that supports more sophisticated programming.
A film critic's way of looking at "Narnia" is as a behind-the-scenes survey of the craftsmanship and technology that make movie magic, whether it's synchronizing dialogue to a badger's moving mouth or digitizing the hoof movements of a faun to make the fantasy creature look real.
Most pertinent, perhaps, is a parent's observation of how younger visitors interact with the displays. Though wall labels are written at a fifth-grade level, for most 10-year-olds the references to Napoleon, Hitler and Einstein require adult interpretation.
On the show's opening weekend, few young children or tweens engaged with the explanatory material, fewer still with an interactive mapping activity that tested knowledge of the relation between regions of Narnia. Instead, they were drawn to human interpreters of the material, such as the enthusiastic gentleman who operated a catapult and explained the projectile's use in war.
What excited younger viewers most was an interactive panel that enabled them to design their own shields, real swords that could be lifted from their Plexiglas sheaths and a leather-and-metal interlaced suit of armor that could be held and hefted. Too subtle for the younger set was the fact that the shields, used in the films, were designed to represent the attributes of their wielders.
The addition of more human interpreters might help enrich the experience for youngsters. As Wint says, "We still learn best from one another."
At the Franklin Institute, 20th and the Parkway, through April 19.
Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Tickets: Daytime (9 a.m.- 5 p.m.): $17.50-$22.25, includes admission to the Franklin exhibits and one Fels Planetarium show. Evening (after 5:30): $9.50-$10.50, "Narnia" only.
Information: www2.fi.edu or 1-877-834-8497.