December 17, 2010

Nano Film Review #29 -- The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

(Earlier Narnia posts: Read my review of Prince Caspian here. Here's Disney's admittance to releasing Prince Caspian on a bad weekend. And here's the news that Disney was dumping the Narnia franchise, but Fox was picking it up.)

Voyage of the Dawn Treader has some really great acting. Some incredible special effects. Great sets. Brilliant cinematography. Awesome creature design. It's a really good movie.

But, you know what, my review is going to be one of those "it was different than the book" type things. I feel bad even typing it. But it's true.

The kid who plays Eustace is spot on perfect. Edmund and Lucy, the same actors from the first two Walden Media Narnia films, fall into their rolls perfectly. Caspian does better as King Caspian than he did as Prince Caspian. The White Witch, brought back in a larger cameo than in Prince Caspian, is right on.

But they made so many changes. Unnecessary changes. Now, I understand the challenges of taking a story created for one medium and changing it to another medium. Most of my experience comes from comic books. I've taken historical stories and turned them into comic books. I've taken novels and turned them into comics. I've also done some small scale film projects and stage projects doing the same thing. And it is a challenge. Books are not visual, and so lots of action can happen within people's minds and it's really interesting, but on the screen or comic book panel or stage it's not as easy to do. But that's not the problem with Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They actually do a really good job of putting the internal conflicts of the characters on the screen in a visual way.

I understand that Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as a book, is not a long story with a beginning, middle, and end. It's a series of episodes, held together by a vague "quest" for seven lords who left Narnia long ago. There's no big battle at the end, there's no huge climax. So some of the "episodes" get rearranged. Two islands stops are combined into one island, saving a lot of time. The scariest and most dangerous island is moved to the end and turned into a fierce conflict. That all makes sense.

But apparently, rescuing the seven lords of Narnia wasn't enough. So they fall into the Star Trek movie trap: a story isn't big enough unless Earth itself is in trouble. So Narnia itself is in trouble. A vague evil is causing trouble, and it keeps showing up, and will eventually destroy Narnia if it isn't stopped. And the only way to stop it is . . . well, it's in the video below.

Yup, for some reason those seven lords of Narnia have a magic sword to place at on Alsan's table. And now our heroes must find the swords to destroy the evil.

Just curious about the logic here -- if it won't work unless all seven swords are brought to the table, what good could it possibly be to split up? Instead of seven guys working together to get teh job done, you've got seven guys trying to do it alone, and if even one of them fails, they all do . . . and they have no way of knowing if one of the others needed help . . . adding this element didn't help create a stronger story, it took a stable story and gave it a whole bunch of plot holes.

So we end up with a movie that becomes the "book to movie" cliche that they avoided in the first two movies. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, changes were made to amp up the action and the drama and to make it more epic. But the story remained the same. In this version, action and drama are amped up . . . but sacrificing the original story to do so. Iconic moments from the book are removed -- moments I was excited to see on the big screen brought to life by master visual effects creators. At one point in the movie, I felt like I was watching an '80's fantasy film -- "You must find the magic weapon to destroy the world-engulfing evil!" and I had images of the Glaive flashing in my head . . . normally not a bad thing.

So overall, we get a well made movie with familiar characters . . . but it's just not Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I'll watch it again. My son was excited about this Narnia movie in the same way I got excited about Star Wars movies. Fortunately, he loves the Narnia books as well.

It's not a bad story. It just felt like big budget fan fiction.

Now, were the spiritual elements lost in the midst of this? Surprisingly, no. There's some really good moments with Aslan and about Aslan. The director and writers were trying to be true, I think, to the intent of the book, and Lewis' ideas. For some reason, though, they just didn't have the same goal for the story.

(Let's address the Liam Neesan controversy for a moment. Mr. Neesan said, "Aslan symbolises a Christlike figure, but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries. That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me." You can't fault him, though, for misunderstanding the difference between Christ and Mohammed & Buddha. Christ is a personal, living part of God who wants a personal relationship with us -- not just a dead mentor. And this shines through brilliantly in the movie. Aslan reveals to Lucy in the end of the movie (and the book) that the reason Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and (eventually, Jill Pole) is so they might get to know Aslan better in our world. That's one of C.S. Lewis' intents for writing these stories as well -- to show us Jesus and help us know him better here.)

So, I do hope Walden Media gets the chance to do Silver Chair, which they should find less challenging to actually use the story as it is. I want to see more of Eustace, and he can carry that film. And I really want to see The Horse and His Boy made into a film (which would allow Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy to appear). But I fear that this is the last we'll see of Narnia on the silver screen. I had hopes for all seven movies to be made, but as of December 15 (six days after opening) Dawn Treader has only made back $112 million of its $155 million budget. It will make money, I think, but it's not a smash hit.

Final thoughts: it's a good movie, it's fun, it's kid-friendly (more than the other two). But I'm a grumpy old man . . .

~ Ben

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