Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2011

Third time's a dud

Voyages to Narnia are getting old in a hurry

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Fox-Walden
Director: Michael Apted
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFreely and Michael Petroni, based on the book by C.S. Lewis
Starring: Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter and Gary Sweet
Rated PG / 1 hour, 53 minutes
(out of four)

I'm tired of special effects. I'm tired of magical creatures and faraway lands and epic journeys - no, not journeys, quests - of heroism. I'm tired of the big-budget flights of fancy that identify themselves in every shot. I'm tired of how cute it all is. I'm tired of the artificiality. And, naturally, I'm tired of talking animals.

To clarify: I am not against any one of these things in and of themselves. (Well, except the talking animals - but who isn't?) What I mean is, I'm tired of the combination of all those things taking the place of an actual movie.

Fantasy epics have become a tired act already. They feel too much like productions and not enough like films. You never get the sense that the final product is the vision of any particular filmmaker, but merely a collection of disparate technical elements cobbled together to look like something resembling an epic. But I've seen epics; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you are no epic.

There's no Peter Jackson of the Narnia series. Heck, there's not even a David Yates. Everything feels like it's being done by a barely-motivated hired hand. At least in the case of Dawn Treader, that is. I think there was a little bit of genuine inspiration in the first two films of the series - but most of that got overshadowed by mediocre special effects and middling narratives.

Seeing a film like this is kinda like seeing a chase scene in an action movie, where as viewers we go into "been there, done that" mode unless the scene really grabs our attention or does something special. But for every Ronin or The Bourne Supremacy chase, there are a hundred we'll never remember. Similarly, fantasy like this merely goes through the motions.

In Dawn Treader, the Narnia we see is not a land that begs to be explored - it only begs to be looked at. So much to look at, so little to see. I think a fine contrast can be made between these films and the Harry Potter series. Disregarding the visually inert early entries, that franchise has been lucky enough to have filmmakers who've brought their own distinct ideas and aesthetics to the table. Alfonso Cuarón took over an already hugely successful series and went in his own wonderful direction. And just look at the way Yates has transformed the series' visuals and atmosphere since taking the helm.

Back in Narnia, the films have had no such distinct voice. Michael Apted, best known among film fans for his Up documentary series, takes the reins in this one, the third of the franchise. And he's a perfectly capable director. But you certainly don't get the sense he's all that invested in the material.

One thing that gave me a bit of a chuckle at the beginning of Dawn Treader is how it basically sets things up in the exact same way as did its predecessor, Prince Caspian. We catch up with the Pevensie kids, they lament their station and how they wish they could be back in Narnia again, and voila - they get transported back to Narnia again. I wondered to myself how long the series could keep that tradition going - will every entry begin this way? And if so, how long until that becomes self-parody? There's a Saturday Night Live sketch in there somewhere, I swear it.

This time around, Lucy and Edmund - not Peter and Susan, who it seems are too old to experience Narnia anymore - are joined by their daft and annoying cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), who looks and talks and acts exactly like a stiff, curmudgeonly 45-year-old man, much to the chagrin of the two lively, imaginative cousins with whom he shares a house.

Eustace doesn't believe in Narnia, of course - or any "kids' stuff," for that matter. He continues to not believe this after he is transported there and forced to live on a boat with talking animals, pirates, soldiers and princes - including Caspian (Ben Barnes), who this time around has learned to pronounce the letter "P" and, it seems, taken an acting class or two.

Will the old stick-in-the-mud Eustace eventually come around and prove himself courageous in the face of danger? I'll never tell. Nor will I get into all the increasingly tedious details of why the Pevensie children have been summoned back to Narnia. It's all so uninteresting, even the Pevensies don't seem particularly invested in the results this time around.

I'm not against seeing future entries in the Narnia series - I just hope that, somewhere along the line, the franchise can lend itself to a filmmaker who can give it a shot in the arm.

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