Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Best Of The Chronicles So Far, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader Still Gets Bogged Down!

The Good: Special effects, Metaphor level, Moments of character growth
The Bad: Moment metaphor is browbeaten, Eustace as narrator, Moments of pacing
The Basics: Despite a rougher start and an exceptionally unlikable narrator, The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is ultimately satisfying and worth the investment!

Because I haven't had the chance to transfer both of them yet, it is worth noting up front that the cinematic renditions of The Chronicles Of Narnia have not fared well under my pen. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!) was frequently clunky and was competing with fresh memories of The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (reviewed here!). I was utterly unimpressed by Prince Caspian, which I went into without any prior knowledge of the story of and when my wife volunteered to take me to the movies yesterday, I felt a little bad about asking to go see The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. I felt bad because I didn't expect to enjoy it and having seen so many previews for the film where my wife said, "I can't believe they are showing that!" I was prepared for some of the "surprises."

Seriously, I'm a pacifist and whomever did the previews for The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader should be put to death. I mean that literally. I'm so sick of movie previews where elements from the last ten minutes are in the preview and I recall that being a problem for Prince Caspian. Walden Media, Disney, someone needs to get fired before you make the next one! It is worth noting, like always under such circumstances, that I have not read the book upon which The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is based. As a result, this is a remarkably pure review of just the film as it stands on its own and in comparison to the prior two The Chronicles Of Narnia films. For a comparison to the book, you'll have to look elsewhere. But for those looking for what they might expect at the theater this weekend, read on!

With Peter and Susan safely stowed at relatives in the United States, World War II progresses in Britain with Lucy and Edmund being forced to stay with their uncle and bratty cousin Eustace. While Eustace berates the pair, a painting on the wall of the house erupts to life and begins filling the room with water, allowing the trio to pass into the magical world of Narnia. There, they are rescued by the massive ship, the Dawn Treader and while Eustace freaks out and refuses to believe in the reality of the world in which they find themselves, Lucy and Edmund quickly take to reacquainting themselves with Caspian and Reepicheep, as well as getting to know the crew of the Dawn Treader. Lucy, Edmund and Caspian are confused as to why Lucy and Edmund have come to Narnia, as the Narnians are not at war and the world is not in peril. In fact, in the three years since Caspian took the throne, Narnia has been at peace.

But a visit to a nearby island soon explains everything. Evil is growing near the Lone Islands and while Eustace makes a nuisance of himself, Lucy, Edmund and Caspian learn of an evil mist which is taking away citizens as a sacrifice to the growing evil. Through a visit to a powerful magician, the crew learns of the location of the darkness that is spreading into Narnia once more and how to stop it. The crew must recover seven magical swords, lay them at the table of Aslan and evil will be defeated. But the way is fraught with temptation and the forces of evil set out to thwart the visitors and crew. It isn't long before Eustace's greed gets the better of him and he is transformed, while Edmund wrestles with his ambition and jealousy, Lucy is overcome by vanity and Caspian is plagued by self-doubt. As the Dawn Treader sails into danger, the crew tries desperately to find the swords and not fall into the traps that befell the former bearers before them!

First off, I should say that I ultimately enjoyed The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, though the movie was plagued right off the bat with two very serious problems. The first issue is the pacing. The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is a quest movie that spends an inordinate amount of time getting to the point. There is simple enjoyment from the spectacle (or there would be if were not for Eustace) of being in Narnia, but the viewer is stuck waiting for the movie to take on a purpose. And when it comes, it is all from exposition, rather than an organic development or series of understandings the protagonists come to. Instead, the Dawn Treader wanders, the crew visits an island, protagonists are captured, sold into slavery and then suddenly, Edmund and Caspian are given a quest by a cellmate. The crew isn't even looking for adventure so much as they happen to be out in the water when Lucy and Edmund are rescued. So, the film starts as a weird combination of boring and annoying - and keep in mind I was sitting next to someone who was exceptionally eager to see the movie.

The second serious detraction is Eustace and, unfortunately, he nearly sinks the movie and puts the entire franchise in jeopardy. Eustace is utterly annoying. He is a brat, spoiled and mean and when he is dragged into Narnia, he is irritable and irritating. The fundamental problem is that his character makes some sense - in that he is overwhelmed by and disbelieving of Narnia - but that he doesn't reach the audience. By the third The Chronicles Of Narnia film, viewers are pretty invested in the magical land. The audience is a group of people who accept or outright believe in talking animals, magical beings and fantasy quests. So having a character who expresses disbelief is something that the audience no longer needs. Yes, we've journeyed here before, yes, we accept the premises, yes, we can understand a newbie might not, BUT Eustace expresses it all in the most upsetting and annoying ways possible. The first hour of The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is stifling because Eustace is the narrator and the effect is about as annoying as one might guess The Phantom Menace would be if it had been narrated by Jar Jar Binks. Director Michael Apted and screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni nearly commit cinematic suicide by preserving Eustace voiceovers for his journal entries.

The only other real gripe I had at the outset was that Caspian, played by Ben Barnes, was made up to look more like a Spaniard or Middle Eastern in Prince Caspian. In The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, he looks more Anglo-Saxon and this is somewhat baffling as men working the high seas tend to be more tanned, not less. So, Caspian did not look or feel quite like viewers might recall him from the last volume.

That said, I ended up being much happier that I stuck with The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader than I had been with any of the previous installments. First, and it might seem odd because I was so annoyed at the film's climax when it was made annoyingly explicit, I enjoyed the metaphoric level The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader was working on. Sure, Aslan has always been a metaphor for Jesus Christ, but in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, there are more complex metaphoric interactions going in. A wizard (a pagan character) illustrates great compassion and higher reasoning in protecting the people on his island and Aslan's pacifism is trumped at a few key moments when violent overthrow is all that stops people from being subjugated on another island. The temptations of Lucy, Caspian, Eustace and Edmund are essentially explorations of Deadly Sins, but they work and are solidly entertaining. Edmund's lust and ambition take the form of the White Witch for a cameo that was pretty much revealed in the trailer to the film. But Eustace's actually leads to real and genuine character growth and it almost redeems the annoying, orange-stealing kid we're stuck with the first half of the film.

The problem for me is that when Aslan does make his appearance, the metaphor becomes both annoyingly blatant for the Christ metaphor and makes an argument that most Christians flocking to the film are likely to neglect. The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader makes a beautiful argument in favor of assisted suicide and the right to die (cannot discuss that more now as that would be spoiling). So, all the Terry Shaivo protecting Paulists who will no doubt make the movie a hit this weekend are missing something if they don't consider that. This is more a problem with the audience than the film and I actually enjoy the idea that a movie that will no-doubt be hailed by the Paulists actually makes a pro-choice argument! But in that same scene, Aslan almost explicitly states he is Christ and that is off-putting to those of us who love magical fantasy.

The other aspect of The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader that works beautifully is the special effects. Unlike the clunky effects of the earlier volumes, by this film, Walden Media has it down pat. The dragon is amazing and sets the bar high for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit and is visually extraordinary on the big screen.

As well, the acting is great in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, except by Gary Sweet, who plays Captain Drinian. I know captains are supposed to be professional, but Sweet is too-often stiff as Drinian. The others, though, do great jobs an Skandar Keynes shows some real emotional range as Edmund. For as annoying as Will Poulter's Eustace is, the young man gets eyelines right while playing off virtual characters and that is wonderful for a young actor. Georgie Henley plays Lucy well with no more uncertainty or little girlish qualities that made her earlier performances problematic. Ben Barnes is fine - make-up aside - as Caspian.

Ultimately, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader takes a while to get going and become interesting, but those who stick it out will be glad they did.

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Lord Of The Rings (1978 animated)


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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