The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were both in attendance and arrived promptly and without ceremony (monarchy or not, we Brits don’t willingly hang around in the cold) at 7.30pm before being introduced to director Michael Apted, producer Mark Johnson and producer of this and director of the last two Narnia instalments Andrew Adamson. The two youngest Pevensie siblings Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley also received a moment in the Royal limelight as well as a Royal nod sent in the direction of Anna Popplewell and Will Poulter (it must be noted that the latter’s superior performance effortlessly outstripped his cast-mates but more on that in a moment). Liam Neeson and Simon Pegg provided more familiar Hollywood faces despite their lack of physical appearance in the film as they had offered their vocal stylings to the great Lion Aslan and the courageous mouse Reepicheep. Michael Apted made a small parade of his cast in front of both audiences who attended the screenings and apologized on behalf of Ben Barnes, the once Prince but now King Caspian, who was absent for his performance in Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre close by. I can tell you more than a few small sighs exhaled from the disappointed female members of our audience during that gentle letdown.
Now, onwards to Narnia.
C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader charts Lucy and Edmund Pevensie’s return to the mythic and beautiful land, or more accurately waters, of their Narnian kingdom, grudgingly flanked by their haughty and bumptious younger cousin Eustace Scrubb. The three characters stuck frustratingly in the limbo and unreality of their British wartime childhood are pulled suddenly through an ocean portal inside a bedroom portrait and land in Narnian waters where King Caspian and his majestic vessel the Dawn Treader await them. Michael Apted’s adaptation of the third part of the author’s epic is undeniably a good effort however it is best to remember upon viewing that ‘Based on the book by C.S. Lewis’ is in the credits for a reason. So let’s try and get the nit-picking out of the way. Although it remains difficult not to compare Narnia to the popular fantasy turned blockbuster worlds of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, especially when one considers the timing of Tolkien and Lewis’ story-writing, there is a clear distinction which sets the Chronicles apart – Narnia contains a balance of mythical sophistication and childish whimsy that the other two sagas just don’t have based on story alone. Surely this should give Dawn Treader and its previous high-budget brothers the edge? Sadly, not quite, but they’re on the right track.
Apted’s dedicated attempt to squeeze in every delicious morsel of visual imagery and plot from the original tale doesn’t over-stuff Dawn Treader however it certainly leaves the film unfortunately over-paced. Dawn Treader is a relatively healthy and well-rounded adaptation but in its attempt to keep itself in perfect motion it sets the treadmill a little too fast and as a result gets quite out of breath in places. The initial exposition is snappy and aesthetically pleasing, one can’t help but be caught up in the superior CGI and high-impact, energetic action of it all. However this sprint pace doesn’t let up…for half of the film. We aren’t given enough time to absorb and appreciate just how much beauty and thought has been manifested on screen as we island hop like restless adrenalin junkies rather than the travelling ocean-tossed heroes we aspire to relate to. What use is Hollywood adrenalin if you don’t let it sink in a little first? Visually the film hits the mark with punchy battle sequences, towering camera angles and rich diverse scenery but we only really get to savour these 3D delights once we leave the penultimate isle. It would have been nice to have had a few lingering encounters so we could giggle properly at the ridiculous Dufflepuds on Coriakin’s island or feel that potent sweep of moral terror on the shore of the gruesome Golden Lake. Obviously it is a balancing act and I am thankful that the director chose to keep us a little too on our toes rather than lulled into a disenchanted sleep.
The cast perform admirably and it must be said I was relieved and slightly stunned to find that Simon Pegg’s bold little Reepicheep was the first talking rodent I’ve ever been able to stomach, minimum irritation and maximum gallantry! We catch some entertaining glimpses of the variety of creatures Narnia has to offer as Tavros the Minotaur throws a slave-trader across the set and mermaids beckon and wave from the sea foam but there is a far greater emphasis on the people of Narnia in Dawn Treader. The people and their ability to overcome their personal monsters and demons: temptation, greed, vanity, and fear. The film-makers have carefully downplayed the religious overtones of the book in favour of fleshing out a more universally distributable sense of morality and justice. With the exception of a few inadaptable moments, because if you took those away well then Aslan would really just be a big furry fake and even children aren’t going to subscribe to that.
Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley and even Caspian despite his handsomely Herculean effort were entirely out-shined by Will Poulter as Eustace Scrubb who is best known for his debut role in Son of Rambow. He was far and away the most believable human-character and I personally couldn’t be happier that if the franchise survives long enough to produce The Silver Chair, he’ll be back! The first half of the film is dominated by Poulter as his presence usurps his cast mates’ performances in far less screen time than it took their characters to build them up. As Eustace he undermines the severity of every character and situation he is reluctantly thrown into. On top of this his characterization is so full and such incredible fun that even when the actor technically disappears for the majority of the latter half he is so firmly secured in the audience’s imagination that his CGI replacement more than manages the job. Georgie Henley shows a more interesting scope and wider range of emotion and maturity now that she has a little space from Anna Popplewell’s shadow but again her development is repeatedly ushered on and sacrificed to keep the plot moving.
Funnily enough I enjoyed the second half of the film much more than the first despite some glaring differences between the events unfolding on screen and the book. Then again all that metaphorical evil mist and island-hopping smacks a teensy bit of J.J. Abrams’ Lost without the J.J. Abrams (aka a little bit tacky and misplaced although I think it had the correct effect on a younger audience) and there is an amusing reincarnation of the Ghostbusters’ marshmallow man thanks to Edmund during the film’s crescendo, do watch out for it, I found it deeply entertaining. For all its flaws this film has a lot of soul and it really mustn’t be taken too seriously. There is an unrefined, imperfect quality to the Narnia Chronicles which I think in a roundabout way happens to work in their favour. We enjoy the talking animals and proper English children flung into ridiculous danger, responsibility and magic a darn sight more when we aren’t trying to make everything fit seamlessly. Don’t try to, the director tried and he only got halfway there this time so you won’t do any better.
In the end, quite simply Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a family picture which isn’t asking you to think too much, just to imagine and don’t ask too many questions. Later I walked gingerly home through the snow with a complimentary bag of popcorn and when the wind finally broke my sad-looking umbrella I happened to look up properly. There wasn’t a soul in sight and as the snowflakes danced in the light from the streetlamp I forgot the cold and began to see the magic behind Narnia a little more clearly than when I’d left the house.
The December episode of Sky Movies’ The Family Show is a Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader Special, in which host Craig Stevens will bring viewers all the action from the red carpet of the title’s World Premiere in London’s Leicester Square, as well as interviews with the cast and clips from the movie. The Family Show Narnia Special airs on Sunday 12th December at 2.25pm on Sky Movies Family/HD.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader is released in UK Cinemas on December 10th 2010.