Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Beloved source material often proves to be treachery for the adapting. Usually this applies for books, but also TV programs, poems, songs, etc. Consumers conjure their third eyes with visions known only to themselves. When captivated sufficiently, we hold that work dearly and hiss with suspicion when Hollywood announces a big screen treatment. It is an almost surefire prescription for disappointment. Nothing can match our individualized interpretations. Film reduces the words or music to actual images. Our imaginations prove again and again to be unfilmable. I've said as much in previous reviews.

What did C.S. Lewis himself once say? “Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

We also grumble loudly when screenwriters and directors dare to change the story around, add and/or drop characters, create new plotlines. All of the above occurs in the latest of the Narnia adaptations, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. If you grew up in a (especially) Protestant environment, it is very likely that you read some or all of Lewis' series of fanciful tales of English children entering the alternate world of Narnia, a magical place filled with great creatures and beasts, good and evil. Desparate conflicts that allow our heroes to step up and display the valor they didn't know they had. Imaginations were fired and many a day was filled with detailed musings on romping through this fantasyland and perhaps even assuming the mantle of king. I'm speaking of my childhood self, here, but I'm sure also that of millions of others. The novels were specifically geared for the younger set, but they were filled with insight and wit. How could it be otherwise with Lewis at the quill? Of course, the author's intentions were to create allegories for the Christian faith.

Accordingly, the recent films have been roundly embraced by Christians as spectacular entertainments that proclaim the majesty of Christ and the grace and peace He provides to the faithful. The words "Jesus" or "Christ" are never uttered in the books or films. But, it's clear what Aslan, the Christ-like lion central to these tales, means when he says to the children who are about to go back home (England), “There, I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name", during one of the final scenes of DAWN TREADER.

Liam Neeson, who provides the voice of Aslan, disagrees. He recently rankled the feathers of Christians by stating that he feels Aslan does not necessarily represent Christ exclusively, but could also be a symbol for other deities/spiritual leaders like Buddha or Mohammed. Lewis is on record stating what the Narnia stories are about; there's no mistake. However, I have the opinion that when an artist creates something and puts it out there, it doesn't matter what he or she intended. The art is released from the artist, and the viewer/reader/listener interprets at his or her discretion. Someone who did not grow up immersed in Christianity may take the events and layers quite differently. Recall how Christians embraced GROUNDHOG DAY and THE MATRIX for their supposed divine imagery. Buddhists were saying much the same.

Oh, but what about THE DAWN TREADER film itself? It is a fast paced, enjoyable entry in this franchise. Perfect for families. There are many flaws to point out, perhaps originating in the story itself. The plot is not fashioned with a clear cut antagonist to Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (their siblings don't make this journey, as it is explained that they are now too old for such fantastic adventures) and their grouchy cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter, who almost steals this movie with his amusing grumbles and hilarious shrieking voice). Rather, we follow our youthful trio who rendevous with Prince Caspian and his sea crew as they attempt to locate seven Narian lords who possess swords which must be retrieved to save the world. There is also a mysterious green mist (representing temptation, I guess) that floats about that I don't recall from the book. To wit, It's probably been about 30 years since I read any of the Narnias. The treacherous voyage will lead our charges to the end of the world, to Dark Island, a place where evil eminates and threatens Narnia and everything in existence.

Along the way we meet the sorts of creatures we have grown to love in these stories. There are the Dufflepuds, initially invisible elf-like men who hop around on one big foot. Also, Reepicheep, a very brave, cutlass wielding mouse who fights alongside Caspian and his men and even teaches the irrascible Eustace how to fight (and double teams with him when the kid turns into a heroic dragon). There's also an impressively ferocious sea monster that is all spikes and fangs (f/x team did nice work there). Director Michael Apted, a Brit who has been making movies (GORILLAS IN THE MIST, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, AMAZING GRACE) for well over 40 years realizes this fantasy fairly well, more than competently, but it's all so flat. As I said, the story is just not that compelling. It's all pleasant but hardly inspiring. Actors are fine. The denouement does pack an emotional wallop, though, and the final scene nicely sets up possible future installments (Silver Chair, mayhaps?).

There are many other Christian reviewers ready with their bows and arrows to attack the filmmakers for again watering down the Christian imagery of C.S. Lewis' stories (the same happened with the previous entry PRINCE CASPIAN). I'm not one of them. I held the books dearly in my youth but not enough to cry foul now at these liberal adaptations. DAWN TREADER is probably the weakest of the series so far, but taken as good clean fun escapism, it's just dandy.

But DON'T waste your money on seeing this in 3-D; it's some of the worst I've yet seen.
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