16 December 2010


When Disney elected to cease paying for Walden Media's adaptations of C.S. Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, following the stilted box-office performance of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian in 2008, it looked for a little while that everybody's favorite watered-down Christian apologetic series would peter out barely a quarter of the way through. Then along came Fox, to rescue the half-prepped The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, getting it into theaters only a year late (though what a damnably destructive year it turned out to be), and with a little bit of luck, this one will finish off the job that Prince Caspian couldn't quite manage, and we'll have no more of them. Because, having now gone 0-for-three on the actual good books, I am personally terrified unto death of what unwatchable hatchet job would come of the winsome anti-Muslim inanities of The Last Battle.

Dawn Treader is comfortably the worst of the three movies. I don't wish to be so blunt about it, but that's the case, and this despite trading in the mildewy talents of Andrew Adamson (who has in his life only ever made Narnia and Shrek movies) for a legitimate, actual movie maker in the form of Michael Apted, continuing his habit of wasting time between Up films by demonstrating that his talents at fiction are nowhere near his talents as a documentarian (you perhaps recall - though I pray that you do not - that he was the perpetrator of the indefensible James Bond abortion The World Is Not Enough). Indeed, Apted's presence is a active detriment to the series; Adamson's lack of personality made for some awfully sleepy movies, but he knew how to steal from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies with aplomb; while Apted's handling of Dawn Treader' s action sequences borders on the incoherent.

This third and possibly final installment in the adventures of the Pevensie children finds the two youngest, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) forced to live with their aunt and uncle, the Scrubbs, and their intensely unlikable cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), sometime in the back half of the Second World War (presumably early 1945; since the first film in the franchise, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe took place during the Blitz and in the interim Keynes and Henley have visibly aged every inch of the five years separating the two films), while their older siblings Peter (William Moseley, in a teeny weeny cameo) and Susan (Anna Popplewell, in a larger cameo) are in America for ill-expressed reasons. I like to imagine the conversation went like this:
FATHER PEVENSIE: "I think we should take the children to America. It's safer there."
MOTHER PEVENSIE: "What, all four?"
FATHER PEVENSIE: "Good Lord, no, only the two we like."
(To be fair, it's only slightly more elegantly expressed in the novel, which conveniently forgot that it was supposed to be wartime).

As scintillating as watching people in a British family hating each other can be, Mike Leigh already had a movie coming out the same December, so the plot kicks in: by means of a magical painting, the three children end up in Narnia, the magical world where Edmund and Lucy once reigned a thousand years ago in Narnia-time, and find themselves on the deck of the Dawn Treader, the finest ship in the Narnian fleet. Onboard, the young King Caspian (Ben Barnes), whose struggles formed the bulk of the plot of the last film, is questing to find the seven lords who stood by his father in the bad old days of his usurping uncle. This plan is quickly superceded when the adventurers learn of a deadly green mist terrorising the outer island, but a convenient wizard of exposition (Billie Brown) explains how finding the seven lords will also bring about the end of the evil mist.

"What, a green mist?" you may be thinking with furrowed brow, if like me you grew up on Lewis's books. Aye: in a break with the formula of the first two movies, which hewed to the source material with fidelity bordering on the annoying, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has upended the original plot to no small degree. Mostly with good cause: out of all seven books, the third had perhaps the least conflict-driven plot, functioning mostly as an allegorical travelogue. By significantly re-ordering the events they've chosen to keep, and hanging the whole affair on a more existential threat, writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (returning from the earlier films), and Michael Petroni (a Narnia virgin) have given it a more conventional and arguably therefore more successful narrative shape.

But even so, Dawn Treader is a dreary, meandering, and largely pointless exercise in shuffling from one event to the next, with the religious symbolism that was Lewis's primary motivation in writing the novels - and Walden Media's chief reason for producing the movies - largely buffed out, and robbing most of the film's theme in the process (it's a weird feeling for me to watch a movie and complain, "There's not enough Jesus in this"; but at least that's something). The book's potent baptism imagery, one of the finest explicitly Christian elements in any of the seven novels, is entirely gone; only at the very end, when the Christ-analogue lion Aslan (voiced, as ever, by Liam Neeson, an uncommonly good choice to play a Christlike animal) explains some rules to the children, does the film lurch towards apologetics, which makes it even worse.

In the meanwhile, the four leads simply plod around and do nothing interesting (for the third consecutive time, Henley is the best of the young actors, but only relatively, and she can do nothing to counteract Poulter's desperate over-acting), while Tilda Swinton makes a cameo as the evil White Witch, doing absolutely nothing for the plot but adding a whole dollop of fake drama, and seriously testing the article of faith amongst cinephiles that there is no such thing as a bad appearance by Tilda Swinton.

Apted, meanwhile, pushes the film through its paces without any sense of epic scale or drama or anything of the sort; at nearly 30 minutes shorter than either of the two previous films, Dawn Treader is horribly rushed, even as the story goes virtually nowhere that it couldn't have gotten to with still half an hour taken out. Moreover, Apted films all of the fighting scenes - of which there are more in this film than in the two others put together, I'd wager - with a combination of jerky, sloppy cutting, needless slow-motion, and a general air of apathy, sucking even more of the energy out of the film.

But he does let the camera linger on the dodgy CGI: man, I remember when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out, and being hugely impressed with the Aslan effects work, and now every single computer-animated figure, from the lion down to the crystalline mermaids following the Dawn Treader like dolphins, looks like a plastic doll, or a plastic doll with fuzz on it. I understand that, even coming out an unsupportably long time after the last film, this one was rushed through a little bit to keep it from being even later; but the filmmakers could have at least pretended that they cared.

Instead, they splashed their boredom onscreen, where everyone could see it and share it. Dawn Treader is slack and messy and small-minded, and it is perversely anti-fun in a way that no fantasy epic has any right to be.



Cameron said...

this movie has the ugliest poster ever. i recently stood in a movie theater staring at it in horror for a good five minutes.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

"The actual good books?" Granted it's been years and years since I read them, but I distinctly recall that The Silver Chair was my favorite--which isn't to say that I'm dying to see it filmed, of course.

I didn't know the specific funding details, but I always got the distinct impression that everyone was all enthusiastic about these movies at first, oh boy, we'll be just like LotR! and then they started actually making them to indifferent critical reception and they all realized that they weren't quite so excited about the project as they'd initially thought they would, and now they can just barely bring themselves to slog forward for fear that just flat-out quitting would make them look dumb. Hard to imagine them going the distance, however.

Duckers said...

Well, I'm still hoping someone will follow up that appalling "Golden Compass" film so I can get some closure...

franklinshepard said...

Yeah, Silver Chair is much better than Prince Caspian in my opinion.

I've said this before and I will say it again - just make medium-budgeted (60-80 million) movies of all of them. Christians don't need constant CG eye-candy, they want moral messages for their children. If the movie has a reasonable budget, it will certainly make back its costs in theatres and then sell on DVD and Blu-ray constantly. Just look how many Christian families own those BBC adaptations that have ridiculously horrible special effects.

PS. Tim, thought this might interest you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt9F7tKcZcU&feature=player_embedded

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

That first paragraph alone is a beaut, I'm almost dreading how terrible the final book would be filmed (I still remember being good and pissed by it). I stopped watching at the first one, and can't even remember WHEN the second one came out.

I was going to ask, but now Duckers' mentioned it and I must: what do you think of THE GOLDEN COMPASS. I'm not embarrassed to say (okay, a little) that I liked it, much.

Densua said...

The fact that I read the reviews rather than watch the movies for entertainment value says it all.

I never particularly thought Narnia was filmable as a big blockbuster movie. BBC adaptation was good, but Narnia has quite a homely style that just looks trite splashed all over a twenty-foot screen. Oh, and the adaptation of His Dark Materials definitely had no excuse for being so meh - the source material had everything anyone with a modicum of movie making talent could need.

PS. They must never, NEVER make The Last Battle. Triteness is forgivable, racism so is not.

dt said...

You people cannot be serious. How jaded you all sound. I saw this movie with my 10 year-old daughter, who was transfixed. I paid attention to how the plot unfolded, and the story arc worked quite well. Great special effects. Not to mention a world view that is largely responsible for any good we have in this nasty old world. The reviewer needs to get out more. He's obviously seen so many movies recently that he let a gem slip by him.

dfa said...

I find the politics behind these books interesting; His Dark Materials presenting atheism, Narnia full-fledged christian apologetics, as the reviewer eloquently points out, and last but not least The Lord of the Rings sporting a catholic viewpoint, itself barely there. I was saddened by the failure of The Golden Compass because the books may be the most endearing of the lot, and they even found the perfect Lyra in Dakota B. Richards. Alas, this was a case where the christian boycott did work. All the Narnia films have going for is early hype that's losing steam.

Matthew said...

Dt, so we are all "jaded" for not all having the same viewpoint as you do?

"The reviewer needs to get out more. He's obviously seen so many movies recently that he let a gem slip by him."

So anyone who disagrees with you "needs to get out more" for the relevation that, holy shit, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a fantastic movie?

Matthew said...

"I paid attention to how the plot unfolded, and the story arc worked quite well. Great special effects."

The story arcs were sloppily handled, with precious little characters to care about and even more than were simply grating archetypes to conform to the expectations of the evangelical Christian market, and the special effects hardly quality as anything even remotely special. How utterly lacking in taste you are for daring to suggest otherwise.

Have I adequately adapted to your "worldview" now by dismissing outright your opposing viewpoint without even bothering to address any substance that it may have?

VLStiles said...

The Narnia movies are fun, wholesome movies with a message. I consider myself to be Agnostic in the religious sense, but was raised with Christian values and beliefs.

I don't believe that Asland will create any converts to Christianity though. Impressionable children, who see the movie, will only notice the connection to Christianity if they are already Christians.

dt hit the nail on the head. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie with my family. I thought it was the best one yet.

"So anyone who disagrees with you "needs to get out more" for the relevation that, holy shit, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a fantastic movie?"

So anyone who disagrees with YOU is simply a Christian moron to be dismissed? What a group of lemming, pompous, well...nevermind.

The Author Empiricus said...

Racist? Anti-Muslim? Really? I should think that the series' two very positive Calormen characters would put the racism to rest while the Calormen religion (as described) doesn't look anything like Islam even if it is in a culture that does have middle eastern aesthetics.

The Chronicles of Narnia are very fine children's stories and the films have suffered as much from a lack of creative imagination as from their shoehorning of American Evangelical moralization into the plot. The result has been dull and plodding from the beginning.