Like its young heroes Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, the Narnia franchise has grown up in the shadow of older, more successful and better looking siblings.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations had been out driving cars, smoking fags and doing stuff to girls for a good couple of years before Andrew Adamson’s Chronicles of Narnia films showed up in the film equivalent of a Christian Youth t-shirt clutching a handful of Warhammer figurines. Try as they might, the first two Narnia movies just couldn’t live up to the fantasy expectations created by the LOTR or Potter franchises, a verdict underlined when Disney dumped the third instalment of the series in December 2008.
As movie-making goes, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been far from plain sailing. Set adrift in rough waters after Prince Caspian’s disappointing box office returns, and released this month in the wake of a staggering performance by the seventh Potter film, Dawn Treader’s claim to be “the motion picture event of the holiday season” would smack of empty posturing were it not for the fact that the film delivers on many fronts.
Away from Narnia and loose on the Eastern seas, the franchise feels revitalised. Off solid ground, Dawn Treader is lighter, brighter and easier to swallow than the stodgy fare of its predecessors. The film benefits from losing some of the trappings of the previous two, including the welcome absence of an ‘epic’ final battle. Past Narnian battle scenes have always seemed sparse in comparison with others in the genre, so the lack of sword-waving otters and galumphing trolls comes as a blessed relief in Dawn Treader’s much quieter final moments.
C.S. Lewis is obviously responsible for much of what works about the film. The narrative step of shedding the older Pevensie children and introducing an irksome cousin to whom the Narnia baton will eventually be passed goes a long way to airing things out. As characters, the Pevensie children can be a bit too earnest. Full of so much wide-eyed wonder and intuitive understanding of the mythical world they’ve fallen into, the addition of a sceptical child with neither imagination nor magic is a nice antidote to Aslan’s saccharin fan club, if only a temporary one.
Because of course, there’s no room for scepticism in Narnia. It’s a magical world that urges children to follow faith rather than reason, and then spits them out when they start discovering pesky things like sex and rationalism. But not all of Dawn Treader’s improving morals stick in your craw. There are sound enough lessons about being happy in your own skin, not coveting the powers or possessions of others and the pleasure of unexpected friendship.
Even the humour seems refreshed, capturing some (but still not enough) of Lewis’ satirical vicious streak. The Dufflepods’ invisible chatter is reminiscent of Jim Henson’s talking scenery in Labyrinth, while Will Poulter (Son of Rambow) does his best Basil Fawlty impression as outraged stiff Eustace.
Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Ben Barnes do a fair enough job with an exposition-heavy script as Lucy, Edmund and Caspian, all of whom have to face some inner demons in their quest to rid the seas of a corrupting evil.
That’s not to say it’s all angst and no action. There are plenty of derring-do sword fights and a horrible Tremors-like sea serpent that gives the Dawn Treader a run for its money. I suppose it’s at this point that reference to the film’s 3D conversion should be made but as the 3D added precisely nothing to my cinematic experience, bringing it up can only add the same to this discussion. At least it didn’t get in the way. Let’s leave it there.
Those familiar with the book will notice one or two reasonable additions to the story that give the Dawn Treader’s voyage a sharper sense of purpose. Without the changes, Lewis’ episodic, anti-climactic island-hopping narrative is more of a gap year for Caspian than a hero’s journey, so fuss from purists should be kept to a minimum. Director Michael Apted and the writers add a justified splosh of jeopardy to hurry things along without impinging on the original story, which sets a fine example to other adaptations.
Apted deserves commendation for much in the film, not least for telling Ben Barnes to lose the Inigo Montoya Spanish twang and the smooth move of swapping Eddie Izzard for Simon Pegg as the voice of heroic mouse Reepicheep. I have nothing against Izzard, but his voice is so distinctive that it seems impossible to separate anything he plays from his “covered in beees!” stage persona, causing you to spend most of Prince Caspian waiting for Reepicheep to break into a James Mason impression.
Anyone who baulked at the clunky God moments of the previous movies might be best off bringing a crossword for Liam Neeson’s closing lines as Aslan. That, or just hum quietly to yourself while gazing at the beautiful final scene.
Of all the film’s impressive effects, two moments really stand out as having done justice to Lewis’ stunning visual imagination: the first being the magical transition through the painting at the beginning, the second the wall of waves that lead to Aslan’s country right at the very end.
Whether The Silver Chair (rumoured to be next on Fox’s list) will have an easier time of it depends very much on how Dawn Treader navigates its way through the December box office, but with seasoned director Apted at the helm, it looks as if the franchise just might have returned the magic as promised. It just took a trip out of Narnia to do it.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.