Four months have sailed by since my first full review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but now that the DVD is out, it is appropriate I share some thoughts on it again. There is always more to say about a good movie, and Dawn Treader is good enough that you can find something new and worthwhile each time you watch.
HJ’s Managing Editor, Greg Wright, revisited the film on his website, Past the Popcorn, and the review was also picked up by Christian Cinema. As he indicates by the titles of the article, Greg thinks the movie is “About What It Ought To Be.” What he means by that he sums up in two paragraphs near the end.
I still defend my original assessment that this is the only one of the three Narnia films thus far that really respects the tone of the original children’s novellas. If Dawn Treader is “light fantasy for kids,” well, isn’t that just what it should be? If it preaches too much for some and not enough for others, though not precisely in the way that the original did, wasn’t that exactly what Lewis’ books did?
On one level, we expect far too much out of our films, and on another we don’t expect enough. I, for one, am glad to see a studio take a “less is better” approach to epic filmmaking; and when the result is less convoluted, less frenetic, and more colorful, well… I’m pretty pleased.
I basically agree with Greg’s assessment, so I can stop right here and be done with this review, right? Well… sorry, reader, but no.
As fans of Narnia (including myself) have engaged with Greg about his review on Facebook, I began to realize that part of what he seems to be saying is that you can only expect a mediocre film from a mediocre book. He points out that The Chronicles are technically inferior to – The Lord of the Rings, for example. From a literary standpoint, that may be true. But from this reader’s standpoint, C S Lewis has a depth which potentially makes each of the books a great movie, not in a “grandiose” sense, but in the sense that the viewer has something to sink his teeth into (as well as something by which to be entertained). If the screenwriters are willing to give Lewis some credit for knowing how to reach an audience.
Warning: This review contains some huge spoilers
That seems to be the rub with Dawn Treader, and series as a whole. The filmmakers too often “blow off” Lewis when they think they know better, to the detriment of the films. No, I’m not turning into a “purist” who thinks the movies should be exactly like the books. You can follow the book’s plot faithfully and still miss its spirit. (For an example of this, see my review of the 1977 Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, Getting Tolkien Wrong… while being faithful to him.)
In the first fifteen minutes of the movie, the adapters do a splendid job of setting up the plot and setting the tone. The spirit of Lewis is in full sway, even though elements such as Edmund trying to get into the military and Susan’s letter from America are added. The exit into Narnia is the opposite of what Lewis wrote—instead of the children falling into the painting, the painting falls into England—but even “purists” seem to have no problem with that. Eustace fainting at the site of a Minotaur on board helps to quickly establish the cousin’s shock, even though Reepicheep is the only talking animal on board in the book. And the added conversation between Lucy and the Mouse about Aslan’s Country establishes the more “spiritual” purpose of the journey, even if his “We have nothing if not belief” falls a little flat.
The movie, in my opinion, begins to unravel when it leaves C S Lewis behind at the Lone Islands. Eustace is inexplicably put in charge of guarding the entrance to the bell tower. The Dawn Treader advance party is attacked by men sliding down ropes. (Where were they hiding?) Captain Drinian and his men rescue them, and the Narnians are celebrated as liberators and praised for their promise to rescue those who have been kidnapped. However, there is no assurance that in their absence the salve traders will not just take over the island again. Criticize him as you will, but at least Lewis left the islands in the hands of the newly-appointed Duke under the authority of Narnia’s King.
The writers were thinking of the future of the franchise, attempting to conjure up a villain and create a tie-in with The Sliver Chair. (Director Michael Apted says as much in the commentaries.) Rumors have it that the original intent was to include the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who is kidnapping and brainwashing slaves to bolster her underground kingdom. The story is that when the “leaked script” got out, there was such an uproar in the fan base that the studio decided to drop all mention of the Green Witch, and so, the green mist itself became the villain. If this account has any truth to it, I am wondering how the powers that be ever thought this would fly. Instead of helping the story by adding an antagonist, they antagonized the fan based and confused the average moviegoer. (That Lewis step-son Doug Gresham is intricately involved in this sequence as the head slaver is also rather ironic.)
The source of the green mist is Dark Island, which Lewis describes as the island “where dreams come true.” Drinian describes it as “pure evil.” But that does not seem to be Lewis’s intent. “Dream” is a neutral word; it can be good or evil… or in between. The sailors in the book initially react to the description with delight. A place where dreams come true is something they have been hoping for all their lives – until they realize not only “good” dreams lie within their hearts. Allowing our imaginations to become reality with no restrictions is indeed a scary thought. It reminds me of Jesus words.
What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. (Mark 7:20-23 NIV)
Lewis was well aware of this. He knew the reason temptations are so hard to resist is not because there is some “green mist” or other force that has “the upper hand” until we follow some formula to break the spell, but because evil is an integral part of each one of us. Such evil is not overcome by shear resistance or willpower, but with God’s help. The account in the book includes Lucy’s prayer to Aslan for help, and his response of the albatross to lead them away from Dark Island. (The movie albatross is no more than a five-second nod to fans of the book, and there is no indication why it is there.)
The movie ultimately does a great job of capturing the overall spirit of the book, but the studio looked too hard to find a villain when the villain was in the hearts of the characters. If the filmmakers had emphasized the evil within and our need of help, instead of just treating it by in a cursory way, they would have created a movie even closer to the spirit and intent of the book’s author… and avoided some cheesy and inconsistent plot lines. The evil within is not an easy concept to capture on film, perhaps, but the movie might have reached beyond good and become great if they had been able… and willing, to do so.