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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Latest ‘Narnia’ Installment does more than just Tread Water


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader = 3 ½ out of 5
Edmund Pevensie: Lucy, have you seen this ship before?
Lucy Pevensie: It's very Narnian looking, isn't it?
Of all the recent, popular, fantasy book series that have been adapted into films since the initial launch of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series is the only one that I have read all the way through.  It has been unfortunate that I have not been very impressed by the first two film entries.  I was disappointed by ‘Wardrobe,’ and while I thought Prince Caspian was better (despite heading into a more disturbingly dark direction, while still being rated PG), I felt it still had problems finding the way to handle the world of Narnia.  With that in mind, I had mixed feelings about what the next entry would have to offer.  ‘Dawn Treader’ is my favorite book of the series, so an adaptation was going to have to work pretty hard to please me.  Fortunately, I found this film to be the best so far in the Narnia film series.

The film is set a few years after the events of Prince Caspian.  Two of the Pevensie children, Lucy and Edmond (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) are living with their annoying cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), while the older siblings are off traveling in different parts of the world, as WWII continues on.  One day, the two spot a painting with the image of a peculiar looking ship.  Just as Eustace continues to try and poke fun at his cousins for their wild imaginations, water emerges from the painting and the three children wind up right in the middle of an ocean in Narnia.  They are immediately picked up by a royal ship, The Dawn Treader, which is being captained by King Caspian (Ben Barnes).

Eustace is immediately taken aback by the world he now finds himself in, but continues to be an irritation.  However, Lucy and Edmond are ready and willing to go on another adventure.  As Caspian informs them, the quest, this time, involves finding the lost seven lords of Narnia, in order to save Narnia from a corrupting evil that has formed on a dark island.  Also joined by their heroic, swashbuckling mouse pal Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), the adventures aboard the Dawn Treader will involve tangles with slave traders, dragons, and sea serpents, along with the prospect of reaching the ends of the world and Aslan’s country.

What I found to enjoy the most about this film, is that it managed to combine a sense of whimsy with the spirit of an old swashbuckler.  If ‘Wardrobe’ was made with the feel of this movie, I would have appreciated it more.  The work done on ‘Treader’ to deliver a fitting Narnia experience has clearly been refined and made to be much more accessible.  It is fortunate that many of these books have a fairly stand alone quality to them, as one can enter this film fresh and not have to worry much about being caught up.  So with that being said, unlike the latest Harry Potter (as much as I enjoyed that film), ‘Dawn Treader’ can easily be viewed by newcomers to the series.


The film looks very good.  Despite being dumped by Disney and picked up by Fox, with a lower budget in mind for its production, the film manages to be a fine looking high seas voyager (I guess between Titanic and Master and Commander, Fox knows how to make good looking, water based films).  Moments such as how the kids enter into Narnia, the effects work on some of the islands they visit, the use of a dragon, and the final battle involving a (notably scary-looking) sea serpent are all top notch.  It is a shame that some of the creature effects (namely the Minotaur on board the ship) come off as looking pretty silly and a bit cheap, but some sacrifices had to be made.

The leads are mostly fine.  Henley, who plays Lucy, still manages to have the right kind of sense of wonderment that makes her a great cipher to view the world through.  Keynes comes off as all right; I put some of this up to a lot of clunky screenwriting, but Edmond’s character in the series tends to be annoying in general (how many times can this kid be tempted by power).  Faring better is Barnes as Caspian, who feels appropriate throughout.  A big leap of faith is pushing the irritation that is Eustace’s character.  The film certainly succeeds at making him annoying, with the audience only hoping that he will be redeemed, but Poutler (who was very good in another film, Son of Rambow) does exactly what is required of him.  Benefiting Eustace’s character is the relationship between him and Pegg as Reepicheep.  And of course, Liam Neeson is reliable as the voice of Aslan.


As much as I enjoyed seeing many of the elements of the book come to life, I still found there to be moments where the excitement is not that strong.  While tighter in pace than the previous films (this one clocks in at just under two hours), the travel from set piece to set piece did not always provide for much in between.  This is somewhat of a shame, because the deviations from the material, which basically involves adding more action sequences, should have served to ramp up the value of fun to have with this film.  Instead, the film only moves through a fairly easy-to-tell story, that mainly works for me due to how well I think the spirit of the series has finally been captured.

Now I do believe this to be a good movie.  It is much less generic than its predecessors, regardless of a few flat moments in its story.  There are a lot of great visuals inserted throughout.  The young leads do an admirable job with their characters.  Director Michael Apted is better known for directing actors than he is for large scale productions, so I was happy to see a good enough balance for this film.  I can only hope that the film does well enough to give the go ahead for The Silver Chair, the next book in the series, which, although not the final installment, could make for a good enough end for the film series.
Eustace Clarence Scrubb: This place just gets weirder and weirder.

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