Reeling It In: 'Dawn Treader' has trouble sailing through the fog

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

Ap Photo/20th Century Fox, Phil Bray
Ap Photo/20th Century Fox, Phil Bray
In this film publicity image released by 20th Century Fox, from left, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes, Laura Brent, and Skandar Keynes are shown in a scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 53 minutes

It's all the rage, of late, to create movie "series," rather than one-offs that spawn a sequel or three. Just about any large-scale fantasy movie of the last decade will be considered part of a trilogy, at a minimum, and possibly even a sextet, assuming the original doesn't tank, as did "The Golden Compass" so spectacularly a couple of years ago. Case in point, "Pirates of the Caribbean" which just finished its trilogy, now has three more movies in the works.

It's actually a pretty smart idea, when you think about it. Say you go see some big-budget spectacle that leaves you, basically, lukewarm. With a basic sequel, you might just say, "skip it," but if it's part of a trilogy, a larger story, you'll go just to see if things pick up. And say they don't. Well, by the time the third one comes around its in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound. You've got to see how it all ends, after all. That's been my experience with the "Twilight" films, at least.

So, for all these epic series floating around, one you wouldn't think would have trouble gaining traction would be C.S. Lewis' sprawling young-adult saga, "The Chronicles of Narnia." It's like "Harry Potter" crossed with "Lord of the Rings" crossed with the Bible. It hits every demographic, but for some reason this series is sputtering.

True, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," is one of the most beloved and well-known books of its genre, but I think the problem lies in the rest of the series. No one knows them. Sure, there are C.S. Lewis nerds out there who love to spout off about "The Magician's Nephew" being the first book chronologically, and how to make the White Witch's Turkish delight, and exactly how tall is Reepacheep, but for the most part, "Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe," is the only story most people actually remember. It's not like 12-year old boys and 40-year old housewives are hauling around a copy of "The Horse and his Boy," tucked in between "The Deathly Hallows" and "Breaking Dawn."

This is a real problem because the marketers want to paint these films as re-discoveries of beloved classics. Other than the first film, they are not. That doesn't make them bad movies or bad stories -- just not particularly recognizable.

This week's installment, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," has just such a problem.

At our story's beginning, Lucy and Edmund, the youngest of the Pevensie children, have been banished to the relatively rural Cambridge during WWII, the result of bombing raids in London. With the two older siblings off doing older sibling things, the two tweens are forced to resign themselves to a summer spent with annoying cousin Eustace, a brainy little brat that I hated immediately.

Not wasting any time with either backstory or context, the film throws us immediately into Narnia when an ocean painting on the wall of Eustace's bedroom begins to flood the room and sucks the trio into the magical land. There they are hauled onto the deck of a magnificent ship by none other than Prince (now King) Caspian -- the hero of the last movie. No one seems particularly surprised to see the children, former monarchs themselves, and it's high times and backslapping all around.

The ship is the Dawn Treader, and it's on a mission to find some lost swords or lords or something. I was a little lost right off the bat, to be honest. I know it's all supposed to be magical fun and minotaurs and swash-buckling mice, but I couldn't help feeling irritated at the sense that I was supposed to be caught up on everyone and their various relationships.

So on we sail, and things start to pick up a little as we reconnoiter a series of magical islands, one of which involves a mysterious fog that is whisking away the citizenry to parts unknown. Gradually things get more and more exciting, and eventually we've got invisible castles, dragons, and a very cool sea-serpent battle. Oh, and Aslan, the messiah-lion shows up once or twice, just for good measure.

"Dawn Treader" benefits from having a relatively strong ending, which means they may be able to soldier on and make the next movie, but I've got my doubts. Though this film eventually caught my attention, it certainly had it's share of "what?!" moments -- leaps of logic or believability that one is apt to be more charitable about if you have a built in adoration for or at least knowledge of the story ahead of time.

I love the fact that through the whole film, the hysterical superstitious members of the crew fret that if they sail too far off the map, they're going to run into monsters. "Sea Serpents? You're nuts! There's no such thing!" This, from a guy with horns and the legs of a goat, while overhead a dragon circles and in the water mermaids swim alongside the ship. But Sea Serpents? That's crazy talk.

I should also say that, despite the action, "Dawn Treader" never gets much clearer. I wasn't ever sure what the fog was supposed to be, or what the importance of the seven lords and seven swords was, except that it all had something to do with faith. Like "Caspian," "Treader" really starts laying on the Christian allegory thick at the end. They talk a lot about faith, but to be honest, I would think it would be easier to believe in Narnia. Aslan keeps showing up to do miracles every time you turn around -- that's not really faith, that's evidence-based fact.

In the end, we find out that the two Pevensie children have done their duty, and that the next story will involve the exceedingly irritating Eustace, a fact that alone may kill off this series that has struggled to find it's legs for years now. The production company, Walden, was being financed by Disney, who dropped them after the last film. 20th Century Fox eventually picked them up to get this film made.

Neither studio has a reputation for being incredibly discerning, so maybe Walden'll be able to eke out the last three stories. I hope so. This one wasn't great, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

Grade: C+

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is rated PG for scary monster sequences.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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