Friday, December 10, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia -- Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Seaworthy

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) • View trailer for Voyage of the Dawn Treader
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy action and one truly scary monster
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.10

After a lumbering sophomore installment that was little more than an excuse for swordplay and a contrived “war” between CGI creatures, the Narnia series has found its footing again.

For starters, we can credit the character mix: Older siblings Susan and Peter have moved on, leaving this adventure to their younger brother and sister, Edmund and Lucy (Skandar Keynes and the always adorable Georgie Henley, still graced with the best rueful smile in town). They’re joined by a newcomer: their obnoxious, condescending cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter), which gives us the chance to experience this magical realm through a fresh set of eyes. This, in turn, makes everything seem new to us, as well.
Caspian (Ben Barnes, left), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie
Henley) learn more about their complex mission after studying a dusty old book
in a magical library. They think they're alone, but they're about to discover
that isn't the case...

(Perhaps more important, this series has been removed from Disney’s hands. The Mouse House has a tendency to put big, fat footprints on pre-existing material, sometimes distorting tone and atmosphere to fit the often rigid “Disney formula.” Narnia is better off without such tampering.)

More importantly, this third installment of C.S. Lewis’ famed series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – is a good, old-fashioned quest in the classic heroic mold: a thrilling adventure scaled down to kid-size perils, setbacks and triumphs. That crucial aspect was lost in the second film, when Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy took this mystical realm for granted, and became far too blasé about everything.

Then, too, the wise and powerful Aslan’s presence has been scaled back, which cuts down on the fortune-cookie pronouncements – even though they always sound cool, when spoken so solemnly by Liam Neeson – and eyebrow-raising, deus ex machina “solutions” to impossible problems. The children are mostly left to control their destinies here, and learn from mistakes; that’s as it should be.

In the real world, roughly three years after the events depicted in Lewis’ second novel, Prince Caspian, England has been enveloped by World War II. It’s 1943; Peter is studying for university exams, while Susan is on holiday in the United States. Lucy and Edmund have been shuttled off to relations in Cambridge, where they’re stuck with their young cousin, the snobbish and wholly intolerant Eustace Clarence Scrubb (played to bratty perfection by Poulter).

Eustace is fond of recording his petulant thoughts and diatribes in a diary, where he can finesse events and people to his own desires. The rigors of real life are best avoided by this young lad, who is ill-equipped to deal with anything that requires pluck or imagination.

He’s forced to acknowledge the need for both when a painting in an upstairs bedroom – an image of an ocean-bound sailing vessel – starts slopping sea water all over the room; moments later, the three children are frantically kicking to the surface of an actual ocean. (A far less elegant means of reaching Narnia than slipping through the back end of a wardrobe and into a snow-covered forest, if you ask me.)

The ship turns out to be the majestic, dragon-shaped Dawn Treader, under the command of their familiar ally, Caspian (Ben Barnes, still suitably dashing). After a quick round of introductions and explanations – Eustace hilariously hoping that he’ll soon wake from what must be a horrible nightmare – things get down to business. Caspian is on a mission to find the seven lost Lords of Telmar, the best friends of his murdered father, and most particularly the enchanted swords wielded by each of these men.

Evil has invaded Narnia once again, this time in the form of a malignant green mist with the power to take people’s minds and vanish their bodies. Caspian believes that these missing victims are somehow retrievable, and that the mist can be defeated; an ancient mage promises that the evil spell can be broken by placing all seven swords on Aslan’s banquet table.

Naturally, the swords are scattered to the four winds, and Aslan’s banquet table lies even farther afield, and so the quest is on.

Each of our young protagonists must face inner doubts and surmount character flaws. Edmund, impatient to prove his worth as a young warrior in his own right, resents Caspian’s mildly patronizing tendency to treat him as an apprentice rather than an equal. Lucy, despairing that she’ll never be as attractive or accomplished as her older sister, unwisely seeks “shortcuts” to re-mold herself in Susan’s image.

(We can imagine that the Lucy of Lewis’ novels is sufficiently plain to make this desire credible, but – as often is the case with movies populated by attractive performers – Henley’s appearance can’t help raising eyebrows, when Lucy frets over not being sufficiently pretty.)

Mostly, though, this is Eustace’s show. The unwilling young adventurer is taken under the wing (paw?) of Reepicheep, the valiant, swashbuckling mouse (voiced with gusto by Simon Pegg, taking over for Eddie Izzard, who handled the character in the previous film). Reepicheep goads and taunts the boy into first acknowledging the obvious – he really is in an otherworldly, magical realm – and then into becoming a better version of himself. The latter is quite the uphill battle, with Eustace managing to muck up every encounter and skirmish along the way.

Ultimately, Eustace must dig deep into his soul after yielding to a temptation that exacts a wholly unexpected price: a “problem” more exhilarating than frightening, which (of course!) is as it should be.

The story’s episodic nature unfolds like chapters in an old-fashioned afternoon movie serial, guided by the certain hand of director Michael Apted, whose vast experience in character dramas and espionage thrillers – Gorillas in the Mist, Nell, Enigma and his long-running documentary series, the most recent installment of which is 49 Up – makes him ideal for this material.

Then, too, screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni have respected Lewis with a solid blend of character interplay, moral crises and swashbuckling derring-do.

The young protagonists here – Edmund, Lucy and Eustace – are in control of their destinies, rather than being insignificant pawns in far greater events, as was the case with the previous film. That’s crucial, because Lewis wanted readers to empathize with his characters: to understand and learn from experiences that carry gentle morals applicable to their own real-world issues.

On the other hand, Lewis’ longtime fans may be chagrined by the degree to which the book’s religious elements have been minimized. The greater theological implications are very subtle this time around, mostly withheld to an epilogue that seems more afterthought than grand design.

Tilda Swinton pops up a few times, still tempting Edmund as the wonderfully malevolent White Witch. And if you don’t blink, you’ll spot David Suchet as a trader.

Everything climaxes in a truly ferocious battle with an appropriately ghastly sea serpent: a monster brought to life by poor Edmund, who can’t hold back his “worst fears” after being told that the green mist is capable of bringing nightmares to life. (In fairness, Edmund can’t be blamed; it’s like being told to stand in a corner and not think of a purple elephant.)

Then, just as the second film – following Lewis’ novel – concluded with the bittersweet realization that Susan and Peter wouldn’t return to Narnia, this one also brings closure to some of our characters, while holding a hint of future adventures for another. With Dawn Treader securely positioned as the holiday season’s most highly visible family-friendly entry – and it deserves the box-office success I expect it to garner – we’ll no doubt glimpse the outcome of that lingering promise when the next book, The Silver Chair, goes into production.

Thanks to Apted and his three scripters, Narnia’s cinematic future once again seems secure.

No comments:

Post a Comment