The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
As a voracious young reader, I grew up on both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lews’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I didn’t know at the time how closely related the two were, but they both made a big impression. And both seem to have been less well-known than I’d thought at the time. The Narnia stories, in particular, seem to have been associated with a certain intellectual Catholic (Roman and Anglican) background; many people I’ve run into lately had little idea there were other books beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But indeed there are; and while only a few of them are as explicitly allegorical as the first, they’re all heavily influenced by Lewis’ Catholic theology.
The third book in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, may be the most unconventional. Where the preceding books — The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian — were styled as pretty straightforward fantasy epics, this one is actually based on the particularly Irish structure of an “Immram”, wherein heroes set out across an uncharted ocean to explore and seek a promised land. It also owes a lot to The Odyssey, especially since it’s built around a sequence of largely disconnected vignettes, each with its own (not always explicit) lesson. Unfortunately, Michael Apted didn’t have the courage to make that movie. Instead he decrees that we’ll take The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and we’ll like it.
From the outset, Apted decided that the episodic structure had to go. Clearly American audiences — particularly the young ones the film would be targeting — are too stupid to handle anything but a conventional epic narrative. So all of the major events show up in some form or another, but almost all of them have been radically restructured. In particular, the writers came up with a thoroughly played-out quest structure, complete with seven swords to serve as plot coupons. Each of Lewis’ carefully-wrought gems is dangled like a cheap bauble on this rusty skeleton of a story.
The most frustrating part about this rampantly commercialistic strategy is that the producers blamed the previous film’s poor performance on its commercialism overcoming the underlying Christian references and alienating a core audience; never mind that Prince Caspian‘s references are far subtler than those in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But instead of making a good film that respects its audience and its source material, they again pander to the lowest common fantasy denominator. And their attention to this oh-so-important audience only extends as far as including the most obvious and superficial Christian language from the book. The heart and soul of Lewis’ work evidently wouldn’t serve the interests of the almighty dollar.
Of course, in case you absolutely have to see this movie — and with Tangled still in theaters there’s really no excuse I can see — I should say something about the 3D: avoid it if at all possible. The film was shot in 2D, and converted in post-production. Now, I’ll admit that they didn’t do the horrendous job that we saw in Alice in Wonderland, but cardboard cutouts are still the order of the day. There’s very little diorama work, and more than a few objects thrown at the audience. For some reason, the effect is particularly bad where rendered images and live-action ones interact. Reepicheep’s tail is a prime offender, giving a distracting stroboscopic effect as it moves across the field of view. Considering how much money you’re already flushing away to see the movie in the first place, don’t add insult to injury by paying for a badly-executed gimmick.
Worth it: not on your life.
Bechdel test: I’m actually going to call this a failure. The little girl “Gael” is completely undeveloped as a character — I had to look her name up, if it was even mentioned in the movie — and she doesn’t even belong in the story in the first place!