Blu-ray Review: NARNIA - VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

Bland fantasy action with a weak overarching story. Heavy-handed invocations of biblical lessons.

Colour me ungrateful, but as much as I am happy to enjoy the capitalist gift-giving rituals of Christmas time I€™m actually not too keen on celebrating the birth of magical Mr. Christ. So for me the forgettable Chronicles of Narnia film series, based on a set of twee, allegory-heavy children's novels by C.S Lewis, are about as much fun as an afternoon spent in a hot classroom being talked at by an especially pious R.E teacher determined to sex-up the bible for impressionable youngsters. In these fantasy adventure films, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and now The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Liam Neeson voices everyone's favourite Jesus-Lion hybrid Aslan and teaches us about the great virtue found in unquestioning, zealous belief and the sanctity of birth-right. (The messiah parallel is less subtle than ever in 'Dawn Treader' as Aslan tells the children at one point, "In your world I have a different name." Wink wink, viewer: can you guess what it is yet?). The first two films starred four, plumy future David Camerons, though that number has been halved for this new adventure as only Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) return from the original group - as they still have moral lessons to learn from an animal that should, by rights, be eating their gormless faces off. However they are joined by a new young companion in the form of their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) who is somehow three times as posh as and about a billion times more irritating than his relatives. Eustace (we are told but never shown) is obsessed with all things "logical" and with "facts" gleaned from books, a malady which causes him to reject fantasy and belittle his cousins' fondness for the lovely and perpetually war torn land of Narnia. He represents the evils of science and is Lewis' attempt to win his ongoing theological arguments by ridiculing his opposition. You see, Eustace is never actually logical or intelligent. He's instead a whiny, cowardly imbecile who questions Narnia even when it is right in front of his nose. The whole concept doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny: in a world where Narnia is real the logical, even scientific, position would be to accept that. Lewis has turned the tables and is charging that the rational (scientists) are in fact the irrational. Surely Eustace is a more accurate analogue for religious faith than his cousins? What's more, how is Aslan able to test the faith of Lucy and company, when he is so omnipotent: benevolently powerful at every turn? This film isn't an advert for "faith" but for "accepting that stuff you've just seen is in fact real". If Aslan turned up in my life every five minutes, of course I€™d believe in Aslan. The film's (or the book's) philosophy on things is at best confused and at worst the exact opposite of the teachings of Christ. For instance, when Eustace falls over, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) quips to Lucy and Edmund: "And you're certain he's related by blood?" Jesus - so we're told by The Bible - used to hang out with the lowest in society and had little time for the rich and powerful. However the Narnia films are quite openly pro-monarchy tales in which the worth of our heroes is assumed to be related to their bloodline as "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve". In this sequel it€™s Edmund's turn to repeatedly recite his older brother's self-important catchphrase "but I'm a king!" at every turn. The children, with the possible exception of amiable young Lucy, are spiteful, contemptible twerps from beginning to end in every film. At the end we€™re always told that they've grown somehow as people, but there is precious little evidence that the spoilt, bickering twits have learned anything. Also, wouldn't Jesus have advocated a "turn the other cheek" policy when it comes to violence? Apparently not, if the Narnia films are to be taken at their word. Here everything is ultimately resolved with the clanking of swords and the firing of arrows (well, at least before they inevitably summon up feline-Jesus as if he's the ultimate form of the Power Ranger Megazord). The film's moral message is a bit messed up too, as warmongering, anthropomorphised mouse Reepicheep constantly urges ten year-old Eustace on towards battle and a valiant death telling him to "never turn away from adventure". He could do with reading Dulce et Decorum est or sitting down to watch a thoughtful John Pilger documentary so he can stop being so bloody keen on homicidal acts of violence. In Narnia you find a bloody 12th century version of Christian piety. There is an old fashioned mentality that you find in these stories, perhaps not surprising given that they were written in the 1950s. Girlish Lucy spends much of Dawn Treader wanting to be prettier so she can attract boys, whilst Edmund wants to prove that he's a manly man with a big sword. Perhaps the markedly tepid response to these film adaptations from audiences is in part down to their lacking any relevance to twenty-first century children. Whether Walden Media make their intended fourth instalment in the series is doubtful, with Dawn Treader reportedly failing to meet the expectations of 20th Century Fox (who saved the series after Disney canned it in 2008). Narnia, as a concept and as a literary world, clearly isn't a place I want to take my imagination. But even with that in mind, it€™s difficult to imagine that fans of this series will be too upset when an adaptation of The Silver Chair is not forthcoming. In truth it's a series that wanted to be a high-profile, fantasy spectacle in the mould of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter but has ended up feeling more like The Golden Compass. Unlike Potter or Rings, the Narnia films have only a very loose overarching continuity and, with the series' most enduring story (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) over and done with straight away, it seems people weren't really moved to come back for seconds, let alone thirds. Andrew Adamson made a handsome job of the first two entries, with Prince Caspian quite a polished and surprisingly scary film in places (such as when snarling occultists try to lure Caspian into reviving Tilda Swinton's White Witch). It was also action-packed, with Adamson writing in new battle scenes not present in the ponderous source text. They were also shot on location in New Zealand and around Europe, giving them an epic grandeur. But even if you worship the Narnia stories, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a tedious telling of this tale. Michael Apted stepped in for this third film and made something much blander. He isn't aided by the fact that a lot of this story takes place at sea and not amidst sweeping vistas, but even when action does take place on terra firma, many of the locations are much more obviously the result of CGI than in the other two films. The result is that even though the set pieces are on a grander scale - with a dragon battling a huge sea serpent around an elaborate galleon on a tempestuous sea at the film's finale - they actually feel smaller and less tangible. Pacing is also an issue, as the characters are each presented with moral trials which they overcome far too quickly and easily, with the film just jumping from event to event without conveying any feeling of significance or genuine peril along the way. Partly due to the episodic nature of the source text, Dawn Treader also lacks a compelling overarching story. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had the battle between the oppressed Narnians and the evil Witch, whilst Prince Caspian was about the Narnians fighting to free themselves from an equally oppressive monarch. Here they are just looking for trouble: the kingdom is at peace and so they take to the seas rather aimlessly looking for adventure, ostensibly to find some missing lords, but this quest has no urgency. The film also suffers from the replacement of Eddie Izzard with Simon Pegg as the voice Reepicheep. Izzard brought a debonair, swashbuckling charm to the character in Prince Caspian, whereas Pegg's voice work is less sincere and fun. Caspian's voice has also changed, with Barnes told to drop the faux Italian accent he affected in the last film, but whilst this might be sensible in some respects (the voice is now a bit less silly), it does break the films' internal continuity and he returns as an unfamiliar character. I may not be a god-fearing Christian, but my beef with Dawn Treader €“ and with the wider C.S Lewis oeuvre €“ is not only with its unsubtle use of Christian dogma, but it€™s with its particular brand of conservative Christianity which is presented incoherently. The theology of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is shallow and patronising, with the film failing to entertain as a fantasy blockbuster, and you come to feel as though you€™re trapped in an interminable Sunday school lesson that even the voice of Liam Neeson fails to enliven.

Extras

Released this week as a €œtriple play€ Blu-ray, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader comes with a DVD copy of the film, as well as a digital copy. Extras are to be found on a counterintuitive and completely arbitrary menu which takes the form of a map, with various features assigned to the islands visited by the crew of the Dawn Treader in the story. Why the director€™s commentary track is to be found on Magician€™s Island is anyone€™s guess. I suppose the idea is that younger Narnia fans will take great joy in €œvisiting€ each island virtually and encountering the bonus materials there as if by chance, but whoever thought this up drastically overestimated the appeal of, say, the promise of an interview with Michael Apted to children. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader aims to overwhelm you with a vast sea of documentaries, Narnia codex videos, trailers, music videos and such. However, you€™ll quickly discover that most of these are under a minute long and the longest interviews tend to run at around five minutes. There are a couple of longer visual effects docs but, all told, you€™ll probably end up wishing these had taken the form of one longer making of film, which would have cut out the constant flittering between the high-definition menus and the (mostly) standard-def extras, as well as the pointless island-hopping experience offered by the menu itself. The best of the features is a seven minute look at an effects sequence which sees Edmund, Lucy and Eustace taken from their world into Narnia via a magical painting. It€™s easy, after twenty or so years of documentaries about CGI, to become a little blasé about these sorts of things, but the work that goes into shots like this €“ which involve stunt people, elaborate sets, lighting challenges and computer work €“ is still staggering. It€™s appropriate that the scene discussed here is the film€™s most visually striking and inventive too. Another decent offering is a montage which shows the progression of visual effects throughout the film, highlighting the various effects shots with before and after images. It has an optional commentary with Apted and producer Mark Johnson, which is also interesting as you discover how CGI is used in scenes where it is almost undetectable (for instance most of the 1940s real-world stuff at the film€™s beginning is shot on blue screen). The same pair also participates in the feature commentary, which is a good listen though quite dry. They make no mention of the theological element of the series, even though it is at its most pronounced in this film, which is odd as it makes the religious element feel a little like the elephant in the room. The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader is available on Blu-ray now.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.