Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Starring: Skander Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes
Directed by: Michael Apted
20th Century Fox/Walden Media
  After The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, released in the summer of 2008, Disney dropped the franchise. The reasons are not entirely clear, but speculation is rife that the film lost out to the heady competition that season and didn’t make as much money as Disney would’ve liked. Thankfully, 20th Century Fox has picked up the series and  with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we return to the magical land of Narnia.

            The Pevensie siblings Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) are living in Cambridge during the Second World War, with their precocious but annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). Edmund and Lucy are pulled back into the world of Narnia, with Eustace as an unwelcome tagalong.

            The three children board the Dawn Treader, the finest vessel of the Narnian kingdom, and Edmund and Lucy reunite with King (formerly Prince) Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the swashbuckling talking mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). Caspian tells them that he is searching for the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia; noblemen who had been banished from the kingdom after Caspian’s evil uncle Miraz usurped the throne.

            Edmund and Lucy jump straight into the adventure, while Eustace continues to irk the crew with his reluctance to participate and his refusal to believe in the world of Narnia. Along the way, the crew of the Dawn Treader must deal with slave traders, invisible mischief-makers, sea serpents and an ominous mist that, like the symbiote in Spider-Man 3, brings out the dark side in those in its thrall.

            The film’s trailers piqued my interest mainly because of the ocean setting. The C.S. Lewis-written source material offers much cinematic potential, especially since the makers of the film have decided to go 3D. Sure enough, the film looks gorgeous with its added visual dimension, creating an adequately immersive world.
            While the first two films seemed to offer up a Narnia that felt more real, Dawn Treader gives us a Narnia that seems more theme-park-esque, the titular ship itself reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. That is not necessarily a bad thing though; the film retains a buoyant, family-friendly style mood throughout as opposed to the slightly gritty Prince Caspian, and the darker moments are not overwhelming and are well-handled.
In the world of visual effects, we seemed to have reached a level where computer-generated characters can hold their ground against live-action actors with acceptable believability. The actors have to be commended for various scenes where they must interact with nothing. Reepicheep looks even better than he did in the film’s predecessor and holds up to extreme close-ups with good facial expressions and nicely-textured fur.

            This instalment is more “adventure” and less “action”, taking a break from the more brutal fantasy violence of the second. The climactic battle with the sea serpent is still a good action sequence though.

            Since messiah-figure Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) deemed that the older Pevensie siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) had learnt all they needed to learn from Narnia, the two only appear in brief cameos, and the film is carried by Keynes and Henley.

            Henley has blossomed into a young woman and it does take a while to get used to seeing the cutest Pevensie sibling all grown up, but she maintains the character’s likeable demeanour and childlike wonderment and seems destined to be an ideal leading lady. The film’s subplot dealing with Lucy’s insecurity when it comes to her appearance and her desire to look as beautiful as her sister is handled a tad clumsily, but that is not Henley’s fault.

Keynes, who in the first two films at times verged on irritating as a third wheel to the sibling team, steps up to the plate as the de facto second-in-command to King Caspian, and does a good job. He is no longer an awkward teenager and the two earlier trips to Narnia have seasoned the character into a competent warrior.

            Ben Barnes seems to have improved quite a bit from his stiff-at-times turn in the previous film. He has grown into the role of Caspian and plays well off the Pevensie siblings; they often banter like close friends. It’s quite a relief that Caspian doesn’t stew over his shortcomings as a king, though the story does adequately address the ruler’s struggles. Will Poulter as Eustace is unlikeable to a fault, and it is to his credit that he manages to make the audience despise him utterly, as the character edges towards a possible redemption.

            Simon Pegg, filling in for Eddie Izzard, is a remarkably fun Reepicheep, lending good vocal comic timing to the role. The other main voice role is that of Aslan, and just as he did in the first two films Liam Neeson sounds fatherly, wise and firm yet kind. However, don’t expect to see a lot of Aslan, as he has a fairly minor role in this film.

            Unlike in the first two films, there doesn’t seem to be a solid antagonist for the siblings to work against. The story is more episodic, as the crew of the Dawn Treader sail from small adventure to small adventure, perhaps like levels in a video game. Therefore, the movie feels like it lacks a solid narrative backbone, even though the “levels” are all quite enjoyable.

            Taking over from Andrew Adamson, director Michael Apted (of Gorillas in the Mist and The World is Not Enough fame) treats the film more like an action adventure and less like a fantasy, but has a firmer grasp cinematically on the material, compared to Adamson whose experience was mainly in animation.

            There is, unfortunately, one trait that all the three Narnia films made so far share, the hard-to-shake feeling that it is not an important motion picture event and rather a semi-epic. The theme park feeling comes up again, and for all its visual spectacle and fine performances, this adaptation doesn’t seem to be as grand as the source material deserves.

            The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ultimately makes for a good holiday season family outing at the cinema, and is a fitting end to the Pevensie trilogy-only time will tell if the remaining four books will make it to the screen. It’s not a game-changer as far as fantasy films go, but it is more than passable as an adventure movie and is something everyone, young and old alike, can enjoy.



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