From “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” film characters have yearned for another life, only to discover that the life they are living is better than anything they could have imagined.
This seems to be a universally popular theme in films, perhaps because almost everyone has asked the question at one time or another, “What if …?”
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is about a lot of things. It is a movie about Napoleon scheming to get himself off the island of St. Helena where he has been exiled. He swaps identities with a poor deckhand who will remain on the island while Napoleon heads for France. The plan works until the imposter refuses to admit he is a fake; he discovers that life as an exiled leader is better than that of a poor man. So the freed Napoleon, now in France, can find no one to believe his story, since everyone believes that Napoleon is still alive and well on his island of exile.
This is also a film about commerce, and how the selling of melons is very much like warfare. In one of the funnier sequences in this humorous film, Napoleon rallies some peasants to organize and strategize so their fruit business will be more profitable.
“New Clothes” is a film about identity as well. Who one is may be determined by many factors, and one of those is who society perceives one to be. In the most haunting scene in the film, Napoleon discovers that he is not the only one who claims to be the emperor. In a France that has moved on since his reign, it is not wise to force reality on a world which prefers to believe that Napoleon is history.
Ultimately, “New Clothes” is a film about a man who once had it all, yet discovers there is more to life than he imagined. It is about the desire for power and influence being overcome by love. Many have sought power throughout the centuries; the Napoleon of this film discovers that real importance comes from the love of family, not from titles and positions of state. In a time when so many in our corporate world seem to have lost all sense of what is really valuable, the Napoleon of “New Clothes” reminds us that life is about choices. Greatness comes from the right choices.
If the great story and inspired message of “New Clothes” were not enough to recommend this film, there are many other reasons to see it. Ian Holm delivers an Oscar-caliber performance playing both Napoleon and the deckhand, Eugene, who impersonates him. The sets, costumes and beautiful French countryside are charming.
The laughs in this film—”New Clothes” is a comedy after all—are intelligent and creative. This is a comedy for people who find little amusing in the antics of Adam Sandler or Will Smith. The humor is just one more of the many ways that “New Clothes” succeeds as a fine film.
George Bailey always wanted to see the world, but ended up in Bedford Falls his whole life, finally discovering that his simple life was a “Wonderful Life” indeed. The fictionalized Napoleon of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” wants to rule the world, but ends up discovering that a simple life offers more than he ever imagined it could.
So he decides to move on from his ambitions and find happiness not in what he wants, but in what he has. That’s a lesson people should consider as they dream of what might have been.
Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: PG for brief language
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Kevin Molony, Alan Taylor and Herbie Wave (based on a novel by Simon Leys)
Cast: Napoleon/Eugene: Ian Holm; Pumpkin: Iben Hjejle; Dr. Lambert: Tim McInnerny