Friday, 24 December 2010

'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' review:

Colour me ungrateful, but as much as I am happy to enjoy the capitalist gift-giving rituals of Christmas time I am 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 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, 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 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".

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 its 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 complete assholes from beginning to end in every film. We are told they've grown somehow, but there is precious little evidence that the spoilt, bickering twits have learned anything.

Also, wouldn't Jesus normally advocate a "turn the other cheek" policy when it comes to violence? Apparently not in the Narnia films where everything is ultimately resolved with the clanking of swords and the firing of arrows (well, at least before they inevitably summon Jesus as if he's the ultimate form of the Power Ranger Megazord). The film's moral messages are a bit messed up too, as warmongering, anthropomorphised mouse Reepicheep is constantly urging 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 and watching a thoughtful John Pilger documentary so he can stop being so bloody keen on homicidal acts of violence.

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 '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 increasingly tepid response to these film adaptations from audiences is in part down to their lacking any relevance to twenty-first century children? Walden Media certainly won't make their intended fourth installment following 'Dawn Treader' failing to meet even the meagre expectations of 20th Century Fox (who saved the series after Disney canned it in 2008).

But even if you are one of the 468,916 people that "like" God on Facebook (correct at the time of writing) and worship the Narnia stories, 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is a tedious telling of this story. 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. However, Michael Apted has stepped in for the 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.

The film's pacing is also amiss, as the characters are each presented with moral trials which are overcome far too quickly and easily, the film just jumping from event to event without conveying any feeling of significance or genuine peril along the way. It also suffers from Apted's decision to replace 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. My girlfriend's description of the change was that "because you have the other voice in your head, it just feels like he has a cold or something." That about sums it up. Caspian's voice has also changed, with Barnes presumably told to drop the faux Italian accent his people had in the last film, but whilst this might be sensible in some respects, it does break the films' internal continuity and he returns as an unfamiliar character.

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 is difficult to see that fans of this series will be too upset when an adaptation of the next book, '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. Or maybe those people have started going to church for their sermons and not the multiplex? Just a thought.

'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC and is out on general release.

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