Trojan Tub Entertainment

Saturday, December 11, 2010

For Narnia!

Last night, on its opening night, I went with my family to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (dir. Michael Apted). I am very grateful for this franchise. How many movies can an entire family, from adults to grade-schoolers, go see and all enjoy, without any fear of inappropriate content, on the one hand, or of utter boredom, on the other? Sure, the Narnia films aren’t the only films that try to hit all four of the main demographic quadrants (males, females, adults, kids), but most family-oriented films these days (the usual Disney and DreamWorks fare) are driven by a brand of snarky, crass humor that, for this correspondent anyway, is wearing a little thin. So bravo for the Narnia franchise, for its tales of swashbuckling adventure, its unabashed portrayals of self-sacrifice, its humor, its protection of innocence, and, not least, its admirable commitment to at least some of the Christian allegory found in C.S. Lewis’s children’s books.

That being said, I don’t believe Dawn Treader worked as a movie as well as it might have done. About halfway through I realized that I really wasn’t that engaged with the story. And I think the reason why is because the central plotline did not connect with the emotional lives of the characters in a significant way. When Edmund, Lucy and Eustace Scrubb are first taken into Narnia and onto King Caspian’s ship, the Dawn Treader, Edmund asks Caspian, “So why are we back here? What’s the adventure?” The very fact that Edmund doesn’t know what the adventure is gives the tale an arbitrary feel, as though any adventure will do. That feeling of arbitrariness abides even as Caspian and the gang get their adventure underway. The challenges faced by our heroes present themselves too much like elements in an obstacle course—external hurdles without deep internal significance. True, Lucy is shown struggling with her envy of her older sister Susan’s beauty; Edmund is shown struggling with his desire for wealth, power and glory; and Eustace is shown struggling with being, as he himself later puts it, “a sod.” But Lucy’s and Edmund’s struggles, at least, are minor episodes, difficulties encountered and dispatched with without very much trouble, and without a strong connection to the central plot. Eustace’s accidental metamorphosis into a dragon is more intimately connected to the plot, and more importantly, the beginning of a profound transformation of his character.

The screenwriters—Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni—certainly had challenges of their own in adapting Lewis’s rather episodic novel, to the point where they felt compelled to invent the unifying goal of the plot: the recovery of the seven swords of the long-lost Narnian lords, necessary for the destruction of Dark Island. This goal certainly gives our heroes an end to achieve and an evil to fight, but again, all on the external level. The net effect is exciting, but emotionally not very satisfying.

Great credit is due to the filmmakers, however, especially for the portrayal of the noble mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard), and to Will Poulter, for his superb turn as Eustace Scrubb. And kudos, too, to the filmmakers, for including the lines, straight out of the book, where Aslan explains to Edmund and Lucy, as they depart Narnia for the last time, that they will see him again in their “own” world: “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

Dawn Treader was co-financed and released by 20th Century Fox, which took over the Narnia franchise from Disney when the latter was disappointed with the performance of the second installment in the series, Prince Caspian. According to the LA Times, the first installment in the series, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, grossed $65.6 million on its opening weekend; Caspian $55.5. Expectations for Dawn Treader’s opening weekend are even lower, but here’s hoping that the film will have legs, and do even better than Caspian over the longer haul. For this franchise deserves all the chances it can get, including the chance to find better solutions to story problems. 

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