10 December 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader- NARNIA 3 Review

Because sometimes, titles are just too damn long to name a film and do a clever pun as well. After being unceremoniously ditched by Disney, 20th Century Fox distributes Walden Media's third C.S. Lewis film, The Chronicles of Narnia- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. With Peter and Susan all grown up, younger siblings Edmund and Lucy Pevensie take centre stage as they return to the magical world of Narnia.

Along with their odious cousin Eustace Scrubb, Edmund and Lucy are surprised to find they've been summoned to a peaceful Narnia. However, King Caspian soon has a mission for them, seeking out seven swords that must be laid at the mystical Jesus Lion Aslan's table in order to defeat a gathering evil. They travel the seas on the Dawn Treader, with each of our heroes being tested their enemies on the way.

Something about the Christian moralising in C.S. Lewis' stories just puts me off. As a lapsed Catholic and now atheist, I'm sure I'd have loved the books had I actually read them in my childhood. The cinematic adaptations of the story wear the religious connotations like a cassock that's several sizes too big, tripping them up as they stride along. It's not that I'm a Richard Dawkins acolyte, even if I'm irked by lines in magic spells that insinuate there's no truth in theology or in questioning anything about the big guy in the sky. It's simply that the central mission of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on the page is incredibly fatalistic.

Almost in appeasement to certain widely-held views on the afterlife and God and what not, the film boosts the importance of the seven magic swords, turning the film into a more urgent version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I. The fetch-quest element might seek to make it more secular and accessible, but the main effect is to remind me what it would have looked like if they really had squashed all of the seventh Harry Potter book into one film, as I wrongly suggested they should have in my review.

Additionally, it reaffirms my opinion from the last time Aslan went head to head with the Boy Who Lived at the box office, back in 2005- I don't know why anyone would go and see Narnia when there's a Harry Potter film out as well. The 2005 Potter outing was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the flaws of that film are echoed slightly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It all opens up very briskly, taking great pains to reintroduce elements like Lucy's dagger and healing cordial without pausing for breath until 15 minutes in, after the once magical ritual of entering Narnia has been firmly glossed over.

It's odd what with the deviations from the book later on, but this feels episodic and segmented in much the same way as Goblet of Fire does with the benefit of hindsight. I can't quite blame the influence of 20th Century Fox, who are more noteworthy for royally interfering with and ruining their tentpole blockbusters than those at the House of Mouse. Surely if that were the case, it would be under 90 minutes long and Jack Black would be Eustace instead of the really rather excellent Will Poulter from Son of Rambow.

Odder still, some of the segments seem to come out of other films entirely. The climactic action setpiece, for instance, has to be seen to be believed- it's an astonishing hybrid of the endings to the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Ghostbusters. I shit you not- Ghostbusters. This meandering juggernaut now rests on the shoulders of Lucy, Edmund and Caspian, still played by Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Ben Barnes. Henley is not above certain cringe-making twee moments and Keynes still seems surprised at where he is, but both have improved. Even Barnes steps up, now that he's abandoned his crap rendition of Inigo Montoya's accent from the last film.

I'm loath to continually compare it to Harry Potter, even if the Harry Potter books are arguably the modern answer to Narnia, but it's in Lucy and Edmund's continuing lack of development that the film really stutters. They're still being led around by expectation, seemingly not really capable of moving their own destinies. Occasionally, they step out of line, but they're slapped down by Aslan, a leonine Liam Neeson in Jesus' clothing. Harry, Ron and Hermione are constantly growing and becoming self-sufficient even from each other. Lucy can't get any further than Aslan's messianic pimp paw.

It is definitely an improvement on the previous film, Prince Caspian, but for me, that's not saying an awful lot. That film was the Temple of Doom to the Raiders that was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe- it changed things up merely by being excessively violent. I still love Temple of Doom, but the big fight in Prince Caspian was just a big punch-up about things I didn't particularly care about. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might have the same staples as its predecessors- a role for Tilda Swinton, animals that sound like famous faces and someone bellowing "For Narnia!"- but enough is done differently to patch it all together.

The most valuable player in the film is the aforementioned Will Poulter as Eustace. In reverence for the source material, the film foolishly leaves him off the playing field for much of the film, for reasons of transmogrification. What we do get of him though is brilliant. He's annoying, but he's meant to be playing annoying, as opposed to Lucy, who occasionally lapses into Dora The Explorer dialogue like "We did it! I knew we would!" The stage is set for his return as a leading man in later Narnia instalments, and if for no one else but him, I hope the scripts and direction improve. He deserves the spotlight on the strength of his role here.

The Chronicles of Narnia- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a serviceable action fantasy for the family in a decidedly weak Christmas season at the cinema, taking a somewhat fatalistic plot thread from the source material and largely translating it with a big fixed friendly expression. Maybe that's more because Fox is taking on what's seen as a risky financial prospect and less because they're updating the story. It's still kind of hamstrung by its obligation to religious audiences, but if it pays off financially, The Silver Chair is next up in production, presumably with Will Poulter in the lead. He's enjoyable enough in this that I hesitantly look forward to Narnia 4, but this sequel could have won over more new fans if it had more of a sense of wonder, or even a sense of humour.

The Chronicles of Narnia- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is now showing in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Chronicles of Narnia- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, why not share your comments below? If you didn't know I used to be Catholic, then never fear- I got better.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.


Caleb Woodbridge said...

Thanks for the review. What do you mean by the story being "fatalistic"?

Mark said...

It's just my own opinion, but as I elaborate after the first time I say it, there's not a lot of room for character development when it feels like the path before the characters is laid out by Aslan. There's not a lot of room for nuance within that beyond Lucy wanting to be pretty and Edmund still thinking about Jadis. And neither of those points figure much into the film.
It's grown on me since I first saw it and wrote this though. Thanks for the comment!

Mark said...

"It's not that I'm a Richard Dawkins acolyte, even if I'm irked by lines in magic spells that insinuate there's no truth in theology or in questioning anything about the big guy in the sky."

I know this was not one the main points in your argument, but I think you have this element of the movie misinterpreted.

The line you are referring to ("...there's not truth in theology, or in questioning anything about the big guy in the sky...") was one read for "a spell to make hidden things visible."

In light of that, I took it that theology is *about* finding truth about God since any revelation of truth is making hidden things visible. But I consider myself a fan of the books and a Christian (if I may be so bold), so perhaps my opinion is colored.

What say you?

Mark said...

Hm, I suppose it can actually be interpreted both ways. Bit of a double entendre, maybe, but the religious elements of this series needle me a little.
As you say, it's not one of the main points, and since I wrote the review, the film's grown on me and I'm actually looking forward to revisiting it. Thanks for the comment!

Mark said...

Thank you also for your reply! I am glad to hear the movie has grown on you.

I am intrigued to hear more about your needling with the movie. Is it solely from the fatalistic approach that you mentioned in the review, or are there additional elements?

I hope I am not being too personal, but just consider me curious.

Mark said...

Not at all- you have a great name, sir!
Aside from the needling of the religious elements, the film has pacing problems, and I've seen many others raise this complaint too. It seems to amble from plot point to plot point without much conviction. The mission or thrust of the story here is not as strong as in the previous films, to the point that I almost identified more with Eustace in saying that this was all rubbish and preposterous and whatnot. All else about my basic quibbles with the film is in the review.
Your comment has reminded me that I was going to go and give this a second viewing, will give it a look next week...

Pak Jeff said...

Thanks for your review, Mark. I'm a fan of the books but certainly not of the movies. The way the whole series has strayed from the original makes me cringe!