When it comes to all things Narnian, I certainly cannot profess to being some kind of expert. The reality is that I only ever read one of the books as a kid, and that the news of a film series in production had nowhere near the same impact that news of the Lord of the Rings movies had on me. There was, however, a twinge of nostalgia that I felt from memories of the late eighties TV series, which I must have watched as a child. That was enough for me to be fairly open minded about seeing the first movie – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the only book that I had ever read from C.S. Lewis’s acclaimed series, and I found the film to be a pretty fitting adaptation. Sure, it was wholeheartedly intended for children, and driven by child protagonists, but it was still a fun adventure, bolstered by supporting contributions from the likes of James McAvoy (memorable as the faun, Mr. Tumnus) and Tilda Swinton (as the dark and seductive White Witch), as well as the distinctive vocal talents of Liam Neeson, providing the voice of the toughest lion in the (Narnian) world, Aslan. By the end of it all even the kids had grown on me; the army battle sequences may have been Lord of the Rings-lite, but the film still had heart, maintaining the darker subtext which involved themes of temptation and sacrifice, and, in my opinion, succeeding as quite a respectful rendition of the beloved source novel.
I don’t really know why you would be reading a review of the third movie in this series without having any knowledge of the previous two, but for those with short memories, the stories revolve around a quartet of children who are living in fear during the early stages of World War II. Shipped out, for their own safety, to stay in the country home of an ageing professor, they discover a wardrobe which connects them to another world – the world of Narnia. There they are each shown their specific talents, and grow to become leaders – even Kings – in a reign which takes place over decades. When they return to the real world, however, they find that little time has passed, and that they remain children, who have much time ahead of them. The sequel, Prince Caspian, is about – you guessed it – a Prince named Caspian. With the loss of its Kings (the children having left), Narnia has been thrown into turmoil, and the four children are forced to return to the fabled kingdom in order to help its rightful ruler, Prince Caspian, regain his throne.
I didn’t really like the second movie at all on first viewing – after a full hour I was feeling quite ambivalent about the whole affair; I didn’t care for any of the characters, and nothing significant appeared to be happening. It took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate the sequel which, whilst distinctly flawed, still certainly had its moments, and was far better than I thought on first try. The trouble came with the conclusion – which stayed true to the source novels, and saw the eldest children, Peter and Susan, being told by Aslan that they were too old to return to Narnia. I think it was a foolish move, as we had only just become accustomed to these child actors, and arguably the elder two were the ones that were the most tolerable. Where would the saga go from here?
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is set three years after the events of the second movie. After a painting comes alive, we find the two younger children from the previous sagas, Lucy and Edmund, are transported back to the magical world of Narnia, together with their irritating cousin Eustace. There they find themselves on a ship – the Dawn Treader – captained by the new King of Narnia (formerly Prince Caspian), who is on a quest to free Narnia from an evil force which is corrupting the population, and which appears to be emanating from a mysterious island. To this end the group have to find seven lost lords, and recover their magical swords – uniting all seven will break the spell; but, along the way, every hero will be tested by the very things that they fear the most.
Despite the massive popularity of the opening instalment, and the reasonably positive reviews, the Narnia series was stalled somewhat by the comparative lack of success (and acclaim) for the sequel. The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe raked in $750M from a budget of $180M, and guaranteed a sequel. Prince Caspian, which was expectedly given an even bigger budget of $225M, unfortunately made only $415M – which, whilst still a profit, was considered a ‘failure’ in terms of what they expected from it. Bigger budget, bigger movie = better profits for the sequel, or so it’s assumed. Still, there was clearly lots of great material left to work with, lots of potential for future successes – the Studios just didn’t want to risk quite as much money third time out. Bloody film studios. Although The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has already made as much money as the second film, it was made on a much-reduced budget of $140M, and runs as the shortest of the trilogy, not even hitting the two-hour mark (where the previous two were both 150 minutes). And you can immediately see the difference in the end result.
Dawn Treader has neither the scale of story nor the epic style of production which the other two had. Honestly, there were more than a few times in the runtime where it looked little more than a glorified TV movie – and I wouldn’t have been surprised at seeing this on BBC split into two hour-long mini-series episodes over consecutive Saturday afternoons. It’s not bad, but it is not particularly cinematic either. And it’s easy to understand why – this was the first movie in the series to be shot digitally, and it shows. The Narnian tales require that warm, artistic look of 35mm film movies, which sport that filmic grain and generally work better for fantasy-driven productions. Digital productions are often a lot more clinical and pristine, and it’s totally unsuitable for the world of Narnia. Furthermore, they’ve done something rather strange with the aspect ratio. Now, this kind of thing would normally only be assessed in the video section, but I think it directly impinges upon your opinion of the film itself. Basically, they’ve changed the aspect ratio to 1.78:1. I don’t know what the movie looked like in the cinema, but I dare say it was considerably more cinematic than this (don’t get me started on the terrible fake 3D they added after-the-fact a la Clash of the Titans, we’re only looking at 2D here). Theatrically, it was presented in 2.35:1 and, in a move not wholly unlike Cameron’s about-turn for Avatar (read my review here, where I make similar observations), they’ve decided to pull back the frames to display the ‘full picture’. Yes, don’t worry, we’re not actually losing any of the picture with this change, but merely displaying the 1.78:1 full image which was previously framed for 2.35:1 theatrically. The trouble is that most of that extra part of the image is wholly worthless – just like for Avatar – as the movie was clearly designed to be shown in 2.35:1, so there’s really nothing important going on at the far top and bottom of the image. Why is this such a problem? Well, not only does it make the digital camerawork all the more glaringly out of place, but it further reduces the cinematic feel to the fantasy adventure. Both previous films were released in 2.35:1, and I’ve no idea why they had this crazy idea to change things here. It really doesn’t help.
So, we’ve extensively covered the reasons why the movie does not have the same epic feel to the previous two, but it also has problems in the story department. After two tales featuring numerous grand battles between armies, we have now ‘downsized’ to what is more like a classic Sinbad story, running over half an hour shorter than both other entries and coming across as distinctly Pirates of the Caribbean-lite. Ok, so there’s some evil fog that’s emanating from a strange island...and the heroes have to find some missing lords, and get their swords, in order to somehow quell the darkness. Trouble is, the fog looks like little more than the black smoke from Lost. It’s not in the least bit scary, or threatening, or significant as a reason for the mission. Again, this harks back to the budget, or lack thereof, and the fact that the consequent CG just doesn’t live up to expectations. Especially considering the fact that the previous two chapters had much better quality effects.
I have to say that I was impressed with the work done on the dragon – it’s apparently an integral ingredient of the book, and it comes across quite realistically considering the rest of the effects. Similarly the ship looks pretty good, but unfortunately a little too good for this kind of tale, like it has never actually seen any water before, let alone been caught in a storm.
Performance-wise I was quite concerned by the lack of the two better child performers from the first two instalments – the actors who play Susan and Peter – and by the fact that this second sequel was going to be led by the youngsters Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes). As it happens, they do pretty well in the roles, Lucy growing up and into the part, and Edmund coming across as marginally less irritating than he was in the previous two. Of course, Edmund’s ‘improvement’ is not wholly to do with Keynes better acting – in fact it’s mostly because he has a new challenger for ‘most irritating character’, with the introduction of their young cousin, Eustace. Again, I’ve heard that Eustace was integral to the book. Here, he’s not quite as involved as fans would like, I suspect, but little criticism should be levied at the child actor involved – Will Poulter – because he is simply perfect as the utterly horrible spoiled brat, who talks through a pig-face, literally looking down his nose at everybody. What’s so great about this, you ask. Well, wait until the final act to see just what a great bit of young acting this is. He may look like American Gothic’s Lucas Black channelling Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade from Sherlock Holmes, he was also in Miami Vice, The New World and, more recently, London Boulevard), with the same weasly aura as the latter, but if you’ve seen Son of Rambow, you know there’s more to this actor than just flared nostrils and ridiculous eyebrows.
The only real disappointment in the acting realm comes from one of the recurring Narnian characters. Sure, Liam Neeson’s ever-reliable as the perpetually under-used Aslan; and Tilda Swinton gets about as much screentime as she did in the last film (i.e. next to nothing) as the White Witch, but we also see Prince Caspian return. Unfortunately. He was a bit of a fop in the previous instalment, so it’s not great to have him return. And worse still, where the hell did his accent go? I know kids aren’t really going to be that bothered with this kind of continuity issue, but he had a Spanish-ish accent in the last movie, and now he sounds utterly British. Hell, he even dips into Cockney occasionally. What the hell? Apparently, with a different director came...different direction, and the decision was made to change the accent of all the Telemarines. Seriously. It’s annoying as hell for adults, and I can’t think why they felt the need to make this jarring change.
I guess after all this you probably know that I generally did not enjoy Dawn Treader. I found it felt like a glorified TV movie, with effects and style to match; its performances were limited and TV in scope, and its characters were not particularly interesting. The story, which has some kind of subtext about redemption for each of the key characters, meanders across a strange course of island-hopping experiences – making pit-stops and undergoing new challenges along the way. None of it really hangs together very well, and you seldom feel like it’s going anywhere at all – you just want it to be over and done with actually. Tension is non-existent, and the movie is extremely child-friendly – until you get to the ship vs. serpent scene, which is positively nasty, and requires an adult to check it out first before giving their younger children nightmares. And the massively religious message at the end of it all? Well, Dawn Treader takes it to the next level with its Christian overtones. I realise that the original books were massively religious (Aslan’s sacrificing himself for his people, and then being resurrected storyline in the first book/movie is obvious as hell) – but somehow they managed to smothered over it enough in the first two adventures so as to make it less obtrusive. Dawn Treader, on the other hand, has the biggest, loudest, most in-your-face message of them all. I don’t mind religious subtext, but I do think a CG lion in a fantastical world actually claiming to be God is a little bit too much. Somehow there’s a big difference between symbolism and actually saying the words, and this addition really didn’t sit well with me.
Overall I think the Studios made some huge missteps with Dawn Treader. They didn’t invest enough, nor did they get the right director on board. The scriptwriters didn’t make the most of the source material, nor give it an epic feel, instead adding some strange, unnecessary enemies into the mix (apparently neither the mysterious ‘Lost’ fog nor the serpent were in the book) in order to pull further away from the Sinbad parallels and cash in on the Pirates of the Caribbean vibe. The performances aren’t up to the scratch of the previous instalments and, overall, the whole production feels like it should have been TV, and not released theatrically. I don’t really know where they will go from here – apparently a prequel is in the works (no doubt to cash in on prequel-interest around Hobbit-time) but I don’t hold out any hopes that C.S. Lewis’s imaginative children’s books will gain any kind of respectful or decent treatment. I can’t see how this will work for kids, and it sure as hell doesn’t work for adults. Disappointing.
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