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Josh’s ADVANCE REVIEW of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader!

November 23rd, 2010

A friend of mine at Walden Media was kind enough to invite me to last night’s sneak peek at the latest Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  (Thanks, Evan!)  I am happy to report that I quite enjoyed the new film (though I recognize that I’m not quite the target audience).

I adored the Narnia books as a kid, reading them over and over (though it’s been a long time, well over a decade-and-a-half, since I’ve last read any of the books).  The first film adaptation, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, left me cold (read my comments on that film here).  It seemed like a film that wanted to be The Lord of the Rings, but wound up being just a pale, half-hearted reflection.  I found the drama as unconvincing as were many of the special effects.  I was far more taken, though, with the follow-up: Prince Caspian.  My understanding is that the sequel did not live up to expectations at the box office, but I thought it was a terrifically rousing installment.  It was a much darker, more serious film.  The special effects were worlds better than the first film (I found the landscapes of Narnia to be extraordinarily beautiful and believable), and the story-line was far more compelling.  (Edward’s duel with the evil Miraz was a particularly stand-out moment.)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader falls somewhere between the first two films, in terms of style and tone.  The film preserves Prince Caspian‘s greater emphasis on creating a compelling, dramatic narrative through-line for the film as well as the high-quality of its fantastic visual effects, while at the same time returning to a slightly more family-friendly tone that is closer to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t have quite the same life-or-death stakes that I felt Prince Caspian did, and it certainly has FAR less of a body count!  As such it seems to me that it will be a more palatable family film than was Caspian.  While the darker and more violent tone of Prince Caspian appealed more to me (as an adult fan of fantasy films), I suspect that the fine folks at Walden Media and 20th Century Fox are hoping that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader hits just the right middle-of-the-road sweet spot with audiences.  Based on what I saw last night I have every reason to suspect that the film will.

In fact, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader reminded me quite strongly of the first two Harry Potter films.  Its episodic nature; its efforts to present some danger and suspense for the characters (and the audience) while still preserving a kid-friendly “it’ll all turn out OK in the end” approach; the frequent pauses to showcase one magical event (and special effect) after another… all of these elements elicited in my mind the feel of those first two Potter films.  Now, that could be construed as a compliment and a criticism, I suppose.  I myself was not a huge fan of those early Harry Potter films — I only really started digging the series when the stories became more complex and adult in the later films.  On the other hand, those early Potter films were wildly successful with audiences worldwide.  As I commented at the start of this review, I recognize that I am not exactly the audience for these Narnia films.  While I might prefer my fantasy adventures on the darker, more violent side, I can recognize an exceedingly well-made family film when I see one.

Director Michael Apted (who replaced Andrew Adamson, the helmer of the first two films) has done a stellar job at putting the film together.  Mr. Apted’s experience with dramas (films like Gorillas in the Mist) and action (the Bond film The World is Not Enough) served him well in creating a rousing adventure film.  Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley have grown nicely into their roles as Edmund and Lucy Pevensie.  Ben Barnes is terrific as King (no-longer Prince) Caspian — he’s so capable that at times I found myself wishing that the British kids could just stay at home for once and allow him to lead his own fantasy film!  Simon Pegg is a lot of fun as the voice of the heroic mouse Reepicheep (though I will admit that I sorely missed Eddie Izzard, who voiced Reepicheep in Prince Caspian).  The weakest link is Will Poulter as Edmund & Lucy’s cousin Eustace.  I’m not sure whether the blame lies with the actor or the script, but either way Eustace is one of the most annoying child presences in a film that I can remember.  Very grating.  I was pleased to see several familiar faces from the first two films, who I’d not expected to see, worked into the movie in small cameos.  Those were nice touches, and I won’t spoil those surprises (even though the film’s poster does!).

I’d read that this latest Narnia film was made on a tighter budget than its predecessor, but I didn’t notice any skimping on the quality of the sets, costumes, or visual effects.  Putting it simply, the film looks great.  The Dawn Treader herself was beautifully realized — the ship looks wonderful, and I never found myself thinking that I was watching actors on a soundstage.  There are a number of gorgeous vistas in the film, but the greatest achievement of the visual effects is the realization of the many creatures of Narnia.  Eustace-as-a-dragon looked absolutely marvelous — totally compelling and believable as a character.  Even better was Reepicheep.  That character has an enormous amount of screen-time throughout the film, to the point that I think the film would have failed if this character hadn’t worked.  Luckily, the courageous mouse was realized with shining colors.  (I particularly loved his duel with Eustace early in the film!)  There are also a couple of nicely-realized visual effects action sequences, most notably the climactic fight with the sea serpent at the end of the film.  That was a wonderfully realized sequence, and a great action climax to the film.

As always with these Narnia movies, there are some aspects of the story about which it’s best not to think too hard.  (What WAS that green mist, really?  Why was it swallowing boats so far from the island it seemed to originate from?  Why was Aslan allowing such bad things to happen on the outskirts of his kingdom?  Why were Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace brought back to Narnia when they were, and how?  Why hadn’t more time passed on Narnia since the Pevensie’s last visit, as it did between the end of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and the beginning of Prince Caspian?  I could go on…)  But none of those niggling questions interfered with my enjoyment of the film.

My thanks once again for the invitation to this advance screening.  For those of you looking for an engaging, family-friendly fantasy film experience this holiday season, I definitely recommend The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  I find myself very much hoping that the film version of The Silver Chair will be coming to us in the not-too-distant future…

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