Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader / ***1/2 (2010)

The difficult road ahead of the Narnia series in the book-to-screen transition is teeming with eobstacles that would call for the demise of countless less ambitious endeavors. To varying degrees, in fact, such fates have already befallen would-be film franchises like the Inheritance series (“Eragon”) and the His Dark Materials Trilogy (“The Golden Compass”), both of which nosedived into oblivion after just one cinematic outing. The dilemma faced by new attempts at capturing the serialized luster of the “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” films falls primarily on a universal Hollywood standard: are the films capable of making money? And if so, how consistent can that be? In the cases of those earlier examples, a first attempt was enough to warrant a thumbs down from studio heads. In the example of a series like this, however, the future dodders back and forth between a menagerie of factors, not the least of which is the constant nagging question as to whether the financial payout can cross the threshold that would warrant continued offerings.

The Narnia films found one runaway hit in the series’ first installment, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”; the follow-up, “Prince Caspian,” was not. After it took home only a fraction of the money its predecessor did, Walt Disney Studios opted to discontinue output of the series, relinquishing the rights of further installments back to the franchise’s right holders, Walden Media. The failure, however, was arguably more of a grey area than Disney would have you assume. Consider that the film opened in the dead of May in 2008, sandwiched between “Iron Man” and the fourth “Indiana Jones” picture, both of which were colossal blockbusters; furthermore, it was Christian themed and opened in May rather than December like the first movie, adding fuel to the argument that the studio’s marketing decisions are what disrupted its path to success rather than the picture itself.

In truth, “Prince Caspian” was a better film; less whimsical and imaginative, perhaps, but consistently paced, and filled with characters that were drawn to full dimension out of a narrative brimming with intrigue. The action sequences were also more thrilling, staged with sharp cinematography that visualized to full scope the story’s strong tactical approach to battle. I do in fact support the argument that the promotional campaign for the film was its biggest cause of fall-out. The movie still made money (mostly overseas, where its legs were more lasting than domestically), but not nearly enough to offset the studio’s very inflated budget. Say what you will about the Mouse House: if the dollars don’t come in to expectation, they don’t spend much time thinking about the risk of a follow-up.

So how did the third story, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” ever have a chance of happening? Walden Media’s faith in the series, perhaps, is beyond comprehension. They pushed this material with a level of dedication that transcends all of Hollywood’s fallback restraints. Foolish, perhaps, but no less steadfast. That chutzpah, combined with the suspicion that the promo of the second film was handled ineptly, did not go unnoticed. 20th Century Fox came to the rescue of the ailing series in late 2009 and green-lit the production of the third movie, though not without new limitations: a less cushy budget, alternate filming locations, and a shooting window that probably warranted groans on the set.

Surprisingly, the result is not the decline in quality you would have anticipated from such restrictions. Here is a movie that performs a tricky balancing act between limited funds and an unlimited sense of wonderment, but does so to such precise calculations that nothing is lost in the rendition. “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” rushes from the screen with ambition and color, excitement and thrill, and a relentless sense of optimism that catapults the story and its visuals to striking heights. It is the kind of movie that you suspect would leave a room full of nervous financial backers letting out not just tremendous sighs of relief but also satisfied smirks.

My familiarity to the story is well known, but perhaps yours is not. The movie opens a year or two after the events of the last; Edmund and Lucy, the youngest two Pevensie children, are now a little older and headstrong, while their older siblings have taken the steps into adulthood that make their participation in potential Narnian events superfluous. In their place we get Eustace, a family relative who is nosy, cynical, and an all-around troublemaker to very unpleasant levels. His love of science and history concede an immediate dismissal of “absurd” stories of a place called Narnia told by his visiting cousins; no, not even when the three of them are seated in a bedroom arguing back and forth, and a painting of a ship on the opposite wall starts animating, is he even slightly intrigued by the possibility of other worlds beyond our own. Such a lack of imagination would make him infuriating to be around in any grade school class about fairy tales.

Soon enough, the two Pevensies and their nasty cousin are whisked back into the world of Narnia, this time aboard a luxurious sea vessel called the Dawn Treader. Led by the now adult King Caspian (Ben Barnes), a journey is underway to find and rescue the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, exiled from the mainland a generation before when the Telmarines were still in power of the kingdom, and sent to live their remaining days somewhere among the Lone Islands. The catch? Said islands run geographically a lengthy distance from shore to the edge of the Narnian Sea, which sets the movie up for an adventurous assortment of quests and struggles that will challenge each important player in a manner that essentially caters to their personality flaws. In one scenario, the Treader’s crew is faced with a deadly green mist that seems to beckon at hidden desires in order to deceive the ship’s inhabitants; in another, the Eustace character is enticed by gold, which is cursed, and it turns him into a voiceless dragon.

The movie adopts an episodic format to make its point. Each island along the journey is an isolated series of rising actions and climaxes that work well as isolated acts, while at the same time adding supplementary pieces to a puzzle created in an overreaching goal. The point of the material, written originally by C.S. Lewis, is to put the plight of swords and sorcery-driven conflict in the hands of immature children, who through their trials and tribulations (and close calls with mortality) learn important lessons that enrich their souls for an oncoming adulthood. The real world that existed in the backdrop of Lewis’ own life was that of World War in Europe, and his experiences no doubt added a certain weight to the goal of these stories. The material is also heavy on religious allegory, in particular with the Aslan character (voiced by Liam Neeson), a great lion that is the author’s own depiction of Jesus Christ.

I am not Christian by any definition. I am a firm believer, however, in the power of literature, regardless of its faith origins, and the Narnia books are immensely engaging fantasies. What is remarkable, perhaps even more than the series’ endurance thus far towards reaching the cinema, is the passion for the source material that continues to carry through these movie adaptations. Here we do not see just faithful retellings but fully elaborated yarns fleshed out with all kinds of bells and whistles added to the foundation. Consider a series of scenes in which the Eustace character engages in arguments with Reepicheep, Caspian’s head of guard, who is, yes, a mouse carrying a small sword. The book makes passing references to their playful challenges in banter; here, we get full-on segments where the dialogue is not only competitive in nature, but actually results in a sequence aboard the Treader’s deck where the two engage spirited combat. The result isn’t as comical as you would suspect, either. For a digital mouse, Reepicheep moves with all the precision and fluid choreography of the CGI Yoda in the “Star Wars” prequels.

A little glimmer in the corner of my mind suggests that the remainder of the Narnia stories will eventually find their way to the screen. There are more obstacles ahead just as before – “Dawn Treader” did modest business in the states despite a phenomenal showing in foreign markets – and questions recently raised about the rights to the remaining stories keeps the material in combative limbo. But they have endured now longer than most expected them to, and with all the striking passion you would not suspect to hold up so consistently after three movies. Even the “Harry Potter” films had their own peaks and valleys, to be fair. What is clear about “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is that these fables continue to find their way into the hands of filmmakers who love and respect the material, and as long as a driving force behind them remains vigilant, the time will come for the remaining ones to have their moment at the movie theater. Moments, I might add, that I await with dedicated enthusiasm.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Adventure/Fantasy (US); 2010; Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action; Running Time: 113 Minutes

Georgie Henley: Lucy Pevensie
Skandar Keynes: Edmund Pevensie
Ben Barnes: King Caspian X
Will Poulter: Eustace Clarence Scrubb
Gary Sweet: Drinian
Liam Neeson: Aslan (voice)
Simon Pegg: Reepicheep (voice)

Produced by
Andrew Adamson, Todd Cogan, Douglas Gresham, Mark Johnson, Cort Kristensen, Jose Ludlow, Perry Moore, Philip Steuer and Jessie ThieleDirected by Michael Apted; Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni; based on the novel by C.S. Lewis

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