Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Chronic-WHAT!-cles of Narnia: Setting Sail With THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER.


- I don't get it. Why have so many critics been hating on the latest Narnia movie? Is it a kneejerk reaction to to series' Christianity-tinged themes? Is it overcompensation, because the rabid fanbase of the Harry Potter films makes bagging on that series too risky? Or is it simply that critics, who tend to love to overanalyze, can't just sit back and enjoy a fantasy film that is unpretentious, unironic, straightforward, and fun? I'm not sure which of these factors has contributed most to the barrage of "C"-range grades doled out to The Dawn Treader, but I am here to say that the new Narnia has been severely underrated. Is it flawed? Sure. But I really enjoyed this one. It may not be sexy or cool, but Narnia is old-school fantasy done well. There's adventure and swordfights and fire-breathing dragons. There's humor and there's heart. What you won't find are pop-culture references or winks at the audience. You won't find edgy direction or dialogue. You won't get tabloid-friendly movie "stars" hogging screentime. No, The Dawn Treader is straight-up kid-lit fantasy, and to me that's what makes it so enjoyable as a film. After a somewhat uneven second movie, I found this third trip to Narnia to be a much-welcome return to form.

Overall, DAWN TREADER is a brighter, snappier, more appealling movie than its predecessor, Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian was a little awkward in that it used Narnia's fantastical world to tell a fairly morose, dark, war story. But Dawn Treader is pure adventure movie, with our heroes sailing the high seas on a quest for seven magical swords that, together, will dispel a dark force that's been slowly growing along the edges of the world.

Okay, I'll be honest. The plot of Dawn Treader isn't anything all that memorable, and yes, at times it does sort of seem like there's a pretty flimsy binding holding this story together. I can't 100% comment on how the narrative here differs from that of the book. I read and loved all of the Narnia books as a kid, but it's been a looong time since I read them and most of the details are pretty fuzzy. That said, I do think that the movie suffers from a lack of a strong narrative drive. There isn't a great singular villain as there was in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and there isn't a huge sense of urgency propelling the plot towards its resolution. I think there is a sort of upside to that, though, just in that the movie has a very breezy, open-air feeling. Without that sense of urgency, the movie does have kind of a fun feeling of just going along for a ride with these characters. Sure, there's some very bad stuff going on in the background, but mostly, Lucy and Edmond just seem to be having a blast riding on a The Dawn Trader, running around with swords and daggers, and hanging out with minotaurs and mermaids. That sense of fun is definitely infectious. This is one of those movies that isn't brimming with intensity, per se, but is great if you want to just sit back, relax, and get lost in another world.

Speaking of which, The Dawn Treader looks really great. The f/x and creature work is amazingly seamless, with all sorts of fantastic beasts and talking animals and monsters popping up in a very natural-seeming manner. What I really loved about the look and feel of The Dawn Treader is that it combined new-school CGI with a somewhat old-school sense of scope and wonderment. The pace of the film is nice and measured, with plenty of scene-setting shots of sailing on clear-blue waters, soaring through the air on the wings of a dragon, and gazing up at craggy castles o windswept isles. There's a great sense of atmosphere that permeates the film - nothing too flashy, no quick-cuts, no glaringly cartoonish CGI. Meanwhile, the action in the movie is really very fun and satisfying. If you grew up on 80's action / fantasy films, there's a very nice sense of fluidity and iconography in the direction that reminded me of the movies I loved as a kid. I mean, even if there wasn't much build-up from a narrative perspective, the movie's climactic battle on the high-seas - involving dragons, sea monsters, and sword-brandishing heroes - is a real joy just to watch - easy to follow yet filled with the kind of big, widescreen moments that are sure to inspire many a fevered notebook-doodle from kids watching the film.

Speaking of kids, even if they don't get much hype, I've been a big fan of Narnia's talented cast of young actors. I always thought that Georgie Henley as Lucy was the heart and soul of the franchise, and with her two eldest siblings taking a backseat in this one, she shines once again in The Dawn Treader. Edmund is also back, and the always-conflicted character once again clashes a bit with Prince Caspian, who helps lead the siblings on their quest.

The two standouts of the movie though? For one, I have to single out Will Poulter as Eustace Scrub, Lucy and Edmund's bratty cousin who tags along with them on their latest trip to Narnia. Poulter was really amazing in the underrated Son of Rambow, and he is once again a show-stealer in The Dawn Treader. Whenever there's a lull in the movie, you can count on Eustace to make things interesting again. And you have to give Poulter extra props, because it's a character that could have been unbearably annoying in lesser hands. But this kid is the real deal - very funny and able to bring a lot of heart to even the most outwardly-obnoxious characters. Eustace is sure to end up as a new fan favorite, and a ton of the credit for that has to go to Poulter. The other real standout is, of course, Reepicheep, the diminuitive mouse who's as quick with a quip as he is with a sword. Formerly voiced by Eddie Izzard, Reep is now given virtual life by the great Simon Pegg, who helps to make the character as fun and funny as ever. The movie pairs Reepicheep with Eustace, creating a very entertaining odd couple that provides many of the film's best moments.

In addition, Liam Neeson is back as the voice of Aslan, though his role is pretty minimal in this one. Tilda Swindon does briefly cameo as the White Witch, but it's a barely-there appearance. As in Prince Caspian, I do think her cameo sort of takes you out of the movie a bit, if only because it makes her all the more conspicuous by her absence for the rest of the film, and calls attention to the fact that there's no equally evil villain in this installment.

Overall, there is a lot to like in The Dawn Treader, and I sincerely hope that the movie's global box office ends up high enough to help justify additional movies in the series. There are a lot of great pieces in place here that the franchise can continue to build upon in future installments. The Dawn Treader can be a little draggy at times, and as a story it's a little more meandering and aimless that it should be. But I like having these movies around. I like that there's a straight-up, kid-friendly fantasy film series out there that serves as a more straightforward alternative to Harry Potter and Twilight. I like that these films deliver a simple, positive message while also not skimping on the swordfights and monsters. I say go and check this one out - it's a good time, with some great visuals and fun characters. Hopefully, this isn't our last trip to Narnia on the bigscreen.

Finally, one note on the 3D: I thought the conversion looked okay, but it suffered from the usual problem of causign the action on-screen to look too dark and muted, and occasionally a bit blurry. There was a nice sense of depth to the picture, but overall, I still don't quite get the benefit of 3D to most live-action films (CG-animated films, on the other hand, tend to look great in 3D). Other than perhaps Avatar, I've yet to see a live-action movie in 3D that really wowed me. That said, as far as conversions go, Narnia's isn't too bad.

My Grade: B+

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