A lot is at stake with the release of the latest film in The Chronicles of Narnia series. After the first film created a box office bonanza, Disney decided to release the much darker and more violent Prince Caspian as a tent pole summer blockbuster instead of at Christmas. Although the film did eventually turn a profit, it was not enough to satisfy the studio who unceremoniously dropped the franchise. After some time hawking the franchise around various studios, Fox took responsibility but slashed the budget. Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which had been in hiatus for nearly a year, was back on again. Now, after much delay, the film finally hits our screens.
Of course, people will be pouring over the box office figures with much interest – both Narnia fans and studio execs. The clue as to whether the next film will get made lies in these figures. As we speak, The Silver Chair is a potential next film – but sadly early figures for Voyage of the Dawn Treader have been nothing short of disastrous. This is already leading to a Christian campaign in America to get churches to preach about the film from the pulpit in an effort to get bums on seats. And, it could be argued, this is the rub of why this film may not attract the punters in a huge way. People don’t want Christian allegory rammed down their throats. They want escapist fantasy, a chance to sit in a cinema seat for two hours and forget about the world.
But what about me? After all, if you are going to be interested in my views on the film, you should have an idea of where I am coming from. Well, I am a Narnia fan who is a non-practising Christian. I like the religious allegories – it is something that makes the books rather different from the fantasy norm. I have never found it offensive, and I have also never found it particularly overt – either in the books or the films so far. In terms of the movie series, I loved the first film both as a movie and an adaptation. However, I also recognised that the neutral may well have found the fact that they slavishly followed the book a bit of a grind. The second one was a pretty good film that I enjoyed, but it did embellish fatally on the book, adding a whole scene which totally changed our view of one of the major characters. Coming into the third film, I did not have high hopes. The budget slash, accompanied by the delay in filming did not make me feel I was going to be impressed with what I was due to see.
At the end of Prince Caspian it was made clear that Peter and Susan were not going to return to Narnia. Therefore, the torch is passed to Edmund (Skander Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) who at the start of the film are staying with their cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). Scrubb is a thoroughly nasty little rich brat – rejecting fantasy and novels completely in favour of factual books. It is not long, however, before a strange painting in one of the rooms comes to life. The painting is of a strange ship floating in the middle of a sea, and the water from the sea starts pouring from the painting, until our three characters are completely submerged.
When they eventually manage to fight their way to the surface, they find themselves in the middle of the ocean, next to the ship from the painting. They are brought aboard, where they realise that King Caspian X (Ben Barnes) is in charge of the ship which is on a quest. The quest is to find seven lords, members of his family who fled during the turbulent times in Narnia. However, it soon becomes clear that their quest is going to slightly change, as they also need to find seven swords and place them onto Aslan’s table in order to break an evil power which has hold over the islands to the East of Narnia.
What immediately surprises about the film is just how accomplished it looks. I was expecting to see some holes in the special effects taking into account the budgetary constraints but from beginning to end (and this is an effects heavy film) the film looks spectacular. The early swooping shots of the Dawn Treader show what a fantastic vessel it is – it looks amazing. The way it is designed is faithful to the book, apart from the colour of the sides. Therefore it has a proud dragons head at the front, and a striking purple main sail. When it ploughs through the water it looks absolutely gorgeous – a throwback to a distant age.
There are several CGI creatures here, noticeable a dragon which one of the main characters gets turned into. This creature is also amazing, managing to look fearless and sad at the same time, showing the human nature trapped inside the scaly body perfectly. There is also a sea serpent that attacks the ship in the darkness, but this still looks superb. We also get a brief glimpse of Aslan’s kingdom, hidden behind a wall of water – and again this looks fantastic.
Therefore, there are no worries on the look of the film which is superb. However, what about the acting and directing? Well, we already know that Keynes and Henley are really good actors – and although ironically they have rather less to do here than in the prequels (even though they are at the centre of the action here) they still put in superb performances. But there is a new kid on the block in the shape of Will Poulter as Eustace, and he is a revelation! For those who haven’t read the books, Eustace is a very difficult and complex character to play. He starts off as a thoroughly unpleasant individual, very unlike any of the other human characters we have seen in the franchise so far. Edmund may have his naughty side, but Eustace is thoroughly unpleasant with no redeeming characteristics for most of the film. It is only when he meets an unfortunate fate, and meets Aslan, that he changes. Will Poulter nails this character. Every nuance is brilliantly portrayed, even the walk is exactly how we might expect the character to walk. He is not afraid to portray the character in an unpleasant light. When he is changed he genuinely appears completely different. It is a great performance that could have come right off the page.
The direction, too, is much more dynamic than I ever expected it to be. The story is essentially a seafaring adventure, with about half the action taking place aboard the Dawn Treader. Apted gets around this slightly restrictive set by swooping the camera spectacularly around the ship, sometimes swooping between the boat’s features itself. This really adds dynamism to the film, and some of these shots are fantastic. When it comes to action scenes as well, Apted shows a great aptitude for them. There are no battles here on the scale of the first two movies, and the action is far more intimate. Apted moves his camera in close to the action and some of the sword fights are superb. There are few showy special moves here as there are in the first movie. There are very few somersaults and unrealistic fights. Everything is grounded more in reality when it comes to the fights and it works very well.
As a film, then, Voyage of the Dawn Treader works extremely well. Indeed I would venture to say it is actually the best of the three so far. What is interesting here is that the first film stuck religiously to the book, and the second was also very faithful – albeit with a very disappointing addition which ruined the whole tone. The third film is actually probably the least faithful to the book so far. Whereas there are whole swathes that are lifted straight from the page, there are large pieces that are additions to the source material. The order of events is changed substantially, and there are two big additions to the plot. However, where this differs from the second film is that the tone of the additions actually work extremely well, enhancing the original story and probably making the film better than the first two in the long run.
For those who I touched on at the beginning, who object to the religious content of the films – this is cleverly placed within the film. It is overt at the end of the film, in a brief scene – but apart from this the subtext is more about character development than religion.
I don’t know whether it is because I went in with lower expectations, but I came out of Voyage of the Dawn Treader having been thoroughly impressed, and having enjoyed it more than the other films in the series. I also have to say, however, that it did not pass the eight year old test. My eight year old niece found a lot of the film boring, and the ending quite frightening. I would suggest that if taking children under ten – you may want to preview the film first. But for children and adults from that age up, whether Narnia fans or not, this is a very enjoyable two hour fantasy adventure film that comes highly recommended.
Firstly, as always I like to state what setup I saw the film on – and as usual it was at my local Odeon. Whilst I am unable to specify the equipment used, I watched in digital 3D on the second biggest digital screen in the cinema. The only bigger one is the IMAX screen.
I also need to state that I saw the film in 3D. Before stating anything else, I need to make this absolutely clear. DO NOT bother to go and see this in 3D. Yep – this is another dodgy up convert! I think my niece summed it up perfectly when I dropped her off at her mother’s. When asked whether she had enjoyed the 3D she answered “The adverts were in 3D but the film wasn’t”. Very occasionally, such as in the recent Alice In Wonderland, the up convert strategy can work but here it is an absolute disaster. I cannot think of one scene where the film actually looked 3D. I could rant for ages about how this technique will kill off 3D before it has even taken off but that is for elsewhere.
Because I did see the film in 3D, my comments about the picture should be taken in context. However, I found the film strangely lacking in colour. The ocean just doesn’t seem quite as blue as it should be, the green mist is strangely anaemic, and the colours on the Dawn Treader are strangely muted. There are definitely times when this is deliberate – such as the dragon’s island – but there are other times when it isn’t. I suspect that this is due to the 3D glasses, and would be interested to see a 2D version to compare.
Wow – the dynamism of this soundtrack is amazing. It does have a slight flaw, which I will come to a little later, but generally this is one of the best films sonically I have seen at the cinema for a long time.
The first thing to mention is the sheer activity of all the speakers. The surrounds are not used to batter you into submission but instead are cleverly employed to really immerse the viewer into the action on the screen. This begins when the water overflows from the picture towards the beginning, filling the sound field. The most impressive scene is when Lucy meets the invisible creatures, and they are surrounding her. Their voices come from front and back, left and right – it is a great piece of sound design.
The vocals are also well prioritised within the mix – never being overwhelmed by effects, however much action is occurring. I never once needed to strain to hear the dialogue. The music also soars, the score is beautifully balanced and fills the cinema.
The slight flaw I mentioned? The soundtrack never goes quite as low as you might hope. It sounds quite shrill at times, and moments when you would expect to have your gut rumbled by a deep bass you actually get nothing. This is a surprising flaw, especially when you consider how balanced the rest of the soundtrack is.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a far better film than you might imagine. It takes a different approach to the first two films in the series, and this approach probably makes it a better film both for fans of the series and for those newcomers to the franchise. It is not afraid to jettison parts of the novel, and embellish it slightly to make a better movie. Apted does a very good job as a newcomer to the franchise, boldly placing his own style on the film and as thus rejuvenating a series that was ailing badly after Prince Caspian. Early box office figures have been very disappointing, and it would be a great shame if the series was allowed to end here as the future looks bright.
I cannot say the same about the picture quality though, particularly on the 3D version. This is another lazy up convert. The director had consider shooting in 3D originally, but had rejected the option. The conversion was done to compete with Tron Legacy and Yogi Bear – two major 3D pictures being released at the same time. It is a poor reason to do it, and the result is as disappointing as you can imagine. Stick to the 2D version if you can. The soundtrack is fantastic – very vibrant and active, and truly filling the theatre. There is a disappointing lack of bass to the mix which loses it a few marks but it is still a very enjoyable soundtrack.
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