Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Film Reviews: 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'

New 'Narnia' a shipshape fantasy

New York Post
December 10, 2010

So Aslan says to Hogwarts: I'll see your Harry Potter and raise you a "Pirates of the Car ibbean."

The eye-popping and entertaining "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" offers a merry seafaring jaunt together with plenty of adventures led by magically empowered kids.

Director Michael Apted brings back a sense of the old-fashioned fun of the low-tech 1960s myths-and-monsters matinees, when no roiling sea ever failed to harbor a giant serpent -- and men stood in the bows of ships facing peril with chins of iron.

The third film in the series finds the two older Pevensie children, Susan and Peter, grown up and moved on to proper adult jobs during WWII. Teens Lucy (Georgie Hensley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are minding their younger cousin Eustace (Will Poulter, an actor who is supposed to be annoying and succeeds perhaps a bit too convincingly). A painting on the wall casts them back into the drink in Narnia, where Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) plucks them out of the sea in his spiffy ship, the Dawn Treader.

There's a big problem in Narnia these days, which is: There are no problems. Peace reigns, though there are a few details that need to be tidied up involving seven missing lords and an equal number of vanished swords. All of these must be gathered in order to solve the mystery of why some Narnians have vanished in ships that were gobbled up by an evil mist.

After a somewhat perfunctory swashbuckling rescue scene on an island where the principals are nearly sold into slavery, Apted keeps coming up with grander and grander special-effects showcases involving dragons, invisible desperadoes, books of magical incantation, a fairy from a distant star and much else fantasy to jolly things forth.

The story has a tendency to wander into detours, but its moral dilemmas run into deeper, more fraught territory than you'll find in "Harry Potter."

Lucy battles her own vanity -- a sure way for wickedness to distract her is to turn her mirror image into a vision of the older sister she considers much more beautiful -- while Edmund wrestles with greed and envy, growing increasingly angry that Prince Caspian is the boss.

The spirit of Aslan the lion (again voiced by Liam Neeson) pops up like Obi-Wan to remind the children of moral imperatives -- as does the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), to coax them into evil.

These soul-ripping aspects are sweetened with plenty of comic interludes, many of them provided by a capering sailor mouse the size of a terrier, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), who is forever teaching the obnoxious Eustace a few lessons.

Despite all the visual effects, the film's best aspects are its attention to real-world values; Hogwarts is a little too inebriated with the spirit of Xbox to bother teaching kids to mind their personal character and do the right thing. "Narnia" also rings with British history and tradition: Not only does the stiff-upper-lip stolidity of WWII Britain give backbone to the children, but there's a pre-battle exhortation whose roots are in Agincourt. You take Harry Potter 7; I'll take Henry V.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

December 8, 2010

The alarming thing about Narnia is that you might be in the same room with it. It could be inside that old wardrobe. Or, this time, inside that painting with the nautical theme. Those waves look so real. In fact, says Lucy, they almost look like they're moving. The next thing we hear is, "I'm inside the painting!"

Indeed she is, and the Dawn Treader is approaching over the waves. Eustace, her nuisance of a cousin, unwisely pulls the painting from the wall, and seawater rushes out and fills the room until they seem in danger of drowning, but no, they surface and are rescued by sailors from the ship, captained by Caspian (Ben Barnes), who almost seems to have been expecting them.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," third of the films inspired by the C. S. Lewis tales, once again requires the services of English children to rescue an alternate universe. How a universe is possible that requires participation from a parallel universe I will leave to theoretical physics. If you don't ask a question, it's not a question.

Aboard the sailing vessel, Lucy (Georgie Henley), her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and young Eustace (Will Poulter) ask no questions. They're too blissful to be back in Narnia, despite the hair-raising adventures they had in the earlier films. Lucy and Edmund, now in their mid-teens, seem uncommonly calm about being yanked from their everyday lives and put on a strange ship in uncharted seas, but these kids have pluck.

They're briefed on the situation: Narnia is threatened by evil forces from the mysterious Dark Island, which no one has seen but everyone has heard about. There is a matter of seven missing magical swords representing the Lords of Telmar, which were given to Narnia by Aslan the Lion (voice of Liam Neeson) and must be brought together again to break a spell that imprisons the lords. Obviously, these kids can do it. Eustace is perhaps 7 years old, but, hey, bring the kid along.

On board the ship is a peppy little swashbuckling rat named Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg). He walks upright, speaks assertively, falls squarely into the semi-obligatory Cute Little Sidekick role, has a heroic heart and a cute little sword he is unafraid to brandish. Why the little fella has never been stepped on and squished goes unexplained.

It's a rough voyage. There is a tempest. There is a horrifying battle with a sea monster. The monster looks big enough to send the Dawn Treader to the bottom with its tail, but the Narniaites prevail, not least because Reepicheep scampers up the rigging and imparts a nasty flesh wound. As they sail from one Narnian island to another seeking the swords, a series of other challenges confronts them, including an ominous sea fog as alarming as the one in Stephen King's "The Mist."

A climactic voyage to the Dark Island becomes necessary, and it is fraught with hazards. Half rations of food and water for all on board! No one knows how far away it is. Lucky thing they know in which direction to sail. If they overshoot the island, they may sail off the edge of the Earth, Columbus having not existed in Narnia.

The island, first glimpsed from a distance, looks ominously like a skull, with the glow of possible volcanoes in its skeleton eyes. Skull Island comes to mind. Here the fate of Narnia will be sealed. The island, we're told, is the habitation and embodiment of pure evil; I suppose, since C.S. Lewis intended his books as Christian allegory, it is Hell. The children and the crew of the Dawn Treader are up against it, and Eustace is greatly pleased by being transformed into a fire-breathing dragon.

If I've lingered overmuch on the story, it's because mostly what you have is a series of opportunities for special effects. The characters have characteristics rather than personalities, and little self-consciousness. They spring to the service of the plot, which, not particularly coherent, boils down to one damn thing after another.

Still, this is a rip-snorting adventure fantasy for families, especially the younger members who are not insistent on continuity. Director Michael Apted may be too good for this material, but he attacks with gusto. Nor are the young actors overly impressed by how nobly archetypal they are; Lucy (who is really the lead) could give lessons to Harry Potter about how to dial down the self-importance. A universe may hang in the balance, but hey, it's only a movie.

I'm afraid it's in 3-D. I will say it has the best rendition of 3-D I've seen in one of these action spectaculars; Apted uses it and is not driven by it. The light level is dimmed. It always is in 3-D. I wish I could have seen it in 2-D. If you can, try to.

Cast & Credits

Edmund- Skandar Keynes
Lucy- Georgie Henley
Eustace- Will Poulter
Caspian- Ben Barnes
White Witch- Tilda Swinton
Reepicheep (voice)- Simon Pegg
Aslan (voice)- Liam Neeson

20th Century-Fox presents a film directed by Michael Apted. Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni, based on books by C.S. Lewis. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG (for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action)

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