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Another seagoing epic in Lewis' magical "chronicles"!
on December 12, 2010
If there's anything that Walden Media's CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movie franchise (based on C.S. Lewis' timeless novels) is known for lately, it could very well be that it ever continued at all. The first film, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, was a box office smash, but successor PRINCE CASPIAN didn't achieve the same success. But when Disney, who distributed and funded both films, decided not to participate in anymore NARNIA adventures, it seemed as though Lewis' tales were destined to remain forever frosted by the White Witch. But thankfully, Walden Media refused to let NARNIA die so easily, and so they've teamed up with 20th Century Fox to complete the third movie in the series, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. It could also very well be the last entry; critics have been lukewarm to negative on this film, and faced with so much competition this year from family films such as TRON LEGACY, HARRY POTTER, and even upcoming duds like YOGI BEAR and GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, this film could very well have a hard time finding its audience. Whether the franchise continues or not is ultimately irrelevant, however, because what ultimately counts is that THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER is a wonderful way to spend another two hours in the world that Lewis conjured up so many years ago.
I knew it would happen. From the moment the opening titles came across the screen, I could feel the nostalgic magic so prevaliant in the first NARNIA movie seeping in, and it stayed that way for me the whole time. The major difference, of course, is the set-up of the story. Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skander Keyes), both approaching adulthood, are staying with their snarky, obnoxious cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter) when they notice a beautiful painting of a fantastical ship sailing on the ocean waters. And of course, the picture comes to life, resulting with the squabbling children washed on the deck of the ship in question, the Dawn Treader, where their old friend, Caspian (Ben Barnes), now a bonafide king, welcomes them. It turns out that Caspian is searching for the seven lords that were banished from Narnia during the reign of his evil uncle. Acompanied by the swashbuckling mouse warrior, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), the youngsters travel to various islands across the oceans in search of them. And will Aslan (voiced, once more, by Liam Neeson) be there to help them? You betcha.
In addition to being a seagoing adventure (inevitable since most of the action takes place on the titular vessel), this tale also deals with spiritual matters. Rather than matching wits against an evil menace as with the last two films (although the White Witch does make some brief cameo appearances), the major conflict deals with Lucy, Edmund, Caspian, and especially Eustace, all dealing with their own inner demons. Each island adventure places the quartet through a series of psychological trials that they must overcome. The lands they visit are a strange, yet fascinating lot. There's the Lost Islands, operated by greedy slavemasters who make fortunes out of auctioning kidnapped people to baddies. Another is seemingly deserted, trippy-looking place that looks as though it could come from ALICE IN WONDERLAND inhabited by invisible creatures as well as a magician (whose book can conjure up all kinds of spells, including one that grants pure beauty). Still others include a cave with a pond that turns everything into gold, a dragon's treasure horde, an abandoned temple that turns out to be under a spell, and, ultimately, a thick fog of darkness in which one's worst fears comes alive. It is within these places that each character undergoes some growth. One of my particular favorite scenes involves Lucy wishing she could be as beautiful as her older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell, in a brief cameo), until Aslan admonishes her for stealing the spell from the magician's book. This is very powerfully depicted through dramatic lighting and emotionally charged acting. At one point, Edmund and Caspian both become jealous of each other when they are tempted by greed, but it's ultimately Eustace who shows the most growth in the picture.
In the beginning of the film, Eustace is just about what you would expect from Lewis' text--he's snobbish, selfish, and condescending, delighting in bullying others while declaring himself superior. He hates his cousins and quickly makes an enemy out of Reepicheep, who, at one point, chastises him for grabbing his most precious attribute: "No one touches the tail!" And just when you've had enough of him, he is transformed into a fire-breathing dragon midway through the film. This is where Eustace's character development really begins, as Reepicheep takes him under his, well, paws, and inspires him to do the right thing. This abovementioned dynamic is the heart of the entire picture, and most of the credit goes to Will Poulter and Simon Pegg for their chemistry. Poulter does a bang-up job of making Eustace bratty and unlikeable, and his maturation is a joy to behold. This guy seriously needs an award for his performance. Pegg, although vocally different from predecessor Eddie Izzard, is a delight as the mouse warrior; his voice is a cross between John Cleese and Cary Elwes, which captures his attitude to a T and beyond. He has the best lines in the picture and obviously has fun with his role--although the real success to the character is the very convincing computer-animated effects that bring the mouse to life.
That's one of the many memorable aspects of VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, which isn't to say that it is without its faults. The film is directed by Michael Apted (the previous ones by Andrew Adamson), and he moves the tale along at a rapid pace, making it the breeziest (and shortest) of the NARNIA films. However, I do have some qualms about both his direction and the adaptation; one of them is the scene where Eustace shows himself as a dragon for the first time. Rather than having him see his reflection in the water, Apted decides instead to show Eustace's charred clothes, and then have his dragon form fly out of nowhere. This disappointed me somewhat, as I felt that Lewis' original description of this moment was more powerful. Furthermore, the encounter with Lilandi (Laura Brent), Caspian's future queen, is dealt with rather quickly. An extra five minutes to show Caspian's affection for the girl wouldn't have hurt. Finally, although the film is faithful to the novel for the most part, there is at least one addition that felt very pointless--a girl named Gael (Arabella Morton) who stows away with her father in search of her missing parents. The new character doesn't have a particularly compelling personality and feels so irrelevant that one wonders why the screenwriters included her at all.
But those are, truthfully, the only quibbles I have with THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. Other controversial changes are nowhere nearly as bothersome. At first I wasn't so sure about the newly invented subplots concerning the search for the missing swords of the seven lords or a menacing green mist that appears every time a character is tempted, but in the end, I ultimately approved them wholeheartedly. This especially works in favor of the climactic fight against one of the ugliest sea serpents ever committed to film (particularly when it literally tears apart into the likeness of a centipede), which is occasionally interspersed with ghostly images of Tilda Swinton's White Witch tempting Edmund to join her. Although longer than in the book, this sequence is nonetheless very thrilling and arguably a more epic scene than in the original. (It should be known, though, that this scene may be too scary for the young.)
Every other aspect of the picture is exactly what one would ask for from a NARNIA adventure. The cinematography and visual effects are both breathtaking and gorgeous to look at (there were a couple of places where some CG was obvious, but not enough to detract--the film was made on a smaller budget than predecessor CASPIAN), and David Arnold's score is amazingly epic, occasionally using some of original composer Harry Gregson-Williams' original tunes at various points in the movie. Finally, the performances are top-notch. Henley's Lucy has always been the most appealing attribute about the whole story, and she is no different here. Every minute she is on screen is a pure delight, and her expressions and emotions are perfectly conveyed. Keyes, who had a much smaller part in the previous movie, gets to do a lot more in this third chapter; granted there are some moments where one feels that his character briefly reverts to his old self, but Keyes handles that very effectively. Barnes mysteriously loses the Spanish accent he was criticized for in the last film, yet it is hardly noticeable, as his performance is much more confident this time around. The chemistry between all three is fantastic and, after Eustace and Reepicheep, provide the film with a warm, emotional ebb that works effectively in the final parting scenes at the end of the film.
Overall, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, although not quite as magical as the first movie, is still a very entertaining, joyous escapist fantasy which provides a lot of fun for every second of its 115 minute running time. There are some differences from the book that purists may quibble with, and a couple of scenes that could stand to be either better or at least more fleshed out, but nonetheless it is a pleasure to join the Pevensies on one final adventure in the world of talking animals, monsters, prophecies and enchantment. Whether the series continues or not, this is a fitting end and a delight from start to finish. Now if only the film could be about 30 minutes longer....