Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Narnia-DF-16721From left, King Caspian (Ben Barnes), Edmond Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) in a scene from ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.’ (Photo by 20th Century Fox/Walden Media)

NEW YORK – C.S. Lewis, the Irish-born writer who spent most of his adult life living in England, wrote many Christian-themed works; but his most popular is his seven-volume children’s classic "The Chronicles of Narnia," which he penned between 1949 and 1954.

It took until 2005 for Hollywood to begin filming Mr. Lewis’s "Narnia" novels. During his lifetime – he died in 1963 – Mr. Lewis was wary of screen adaptations dealing with the more fantastical anthropomorphic elements (i.e. talking animals) of his ‘Narnia’ novels. It was only after his stepson and literary executor, Douglas Gresham, saw a demo reel of computer-generated imagery (CGI) animals that film rights for all seven novels were sold to Walden Media, a children’s film and publishing company.

With financial help from the Disney Studios, Walden Media made an enchanting movie of the series’ first novel, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which became an enormous success with critics and family audiences, globally grossing $745 million. Their second "Narnia" film adaptation "Prince Caspian," released in the summer of 2008, was a lavish and overbudgeted disappointment that tanked at the box office. Disney quickly withdrew its co-production support, announcing in the press that the "Narnia" franchise was "beyond repair."

For the third installment, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Disney has been replaced by the more cost-conservative 20th Century Fox, which cut the new film’s budget for visual effects in half, reused digital designs of its computer-generated animal characters and shot the film in a tight 90 days in tax-favorable Australia. It also replaced the series’ original director, Andrew Adamson, with Englishman Michael Apted. A 3-D version was shot, which turns out to be an entirely superfluous effort that does nothing to enhance the film.

The result is a watered-down version of Mr. Lewis’ novel "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" that looks and feels paltry in comparison to the magical "The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe" and even the inferior "Prince Caspian." It is sad to report that as masterly as Mr. Lewis’s "Narnia" chronicles may seem on paper, on screen, his "Dawn Treader" tale comes across as hopelessly repetitive: a predictable seen-that, done-that-already kind of film.

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" starts in a way similar to the other two filmed "Narnia" stories, with the youngest Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmond (Skandar Keynes) on their own. (Their siblings are studying elsewhere for exams or traveling abroad with their parents.) They are cooped up in Cambridge, England, with their obnoxious cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), the wild-card character of the film who gives a stand-out performance as the pint-sized, pain-in-the-neck relative. Mr. Poulter overshadows the bland performances of Ms. Henley and Mr. Keynes and all but runs away with the film.

The three youngsters are drawn into the fictional world of Narnia, this time not through a wardrobe, or by sounds of Prince Caspian’s clarion horn, but rather by way of a painting of a ship at sea that hangs in their guest bedroom. Suddenly, the room is filled with water, and Lucy, Edmund and Eustace float off into blue ocean waters only to be rescued and taken aboard the mast-ship "Dawn Treader."

It should be noted that some of the sea cinematography by Dante Spinotti is glorious. Once on board, we meet the former Prince – now King – Caspian (Ben Barnes) and a ship full of scruffy-looking pirates and talking animals. King Caspian recruits the children, including the unwilling Eustace, to begin their search for the seven lost lords of Narnia. Along the way, we meet a variety of Lewis’s imaginative motley characters – water sprites, mermaids, dwarfs – while Eustace gets magically turned into an impressive CGI dragon that, by the end of the film, leads to his amending his whiny disposition.

The children are once again guided by Aslan, the talking lion (voice of Liam Neeson), Lewis’s representative Christ figure, who dispenses helpful homilies and assists them through their dangerous adventures and numerous battles.

Once again, Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg), the valiant talking, take-charge mouse, is on hand as the children’s and king’s loyal ally. Near the end of their journey, the ethereal Tilda Swinton, makes a fleeting appearance as the evil White Witch from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Ms. Swinton must be considered as the series’ good-luck charm since she also had a brief cameo in "Prince Caspian."

What "Dawn Treader" seems to prove is that not all of Mr. Lewis’s Narnia novels warrant screen adaptations. Unlike the "Harry Potter" series or "The Lord of the Rings" cycle by his friend and contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, the "Narnia" films all seem to be telling the same story. In retrospect, Disney’s quick exit from the franchise after the lame reception of "Prince Caspian" might have been a foreboding signal.

The reason "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" turned out to be a natural to transfer to the film medium was that in both the novel and the film, Mr. Lewis invented a new, enchanting world that we had never encountered before. Yet, like a lot of writers, Mr. Lewis probably said everything that he had to say on his chosen subject in that novel. And he said it brilliantly, with freshness and originality.

Some of the subsequent books in the series and, to a much greater degree, the films "Prince Caspian" and the "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," seem to stretch his seminal message. And even with all of their 21st-century cinema tricks, they remain ultimately unfulfilling.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.