Rarely does water play a major role in movies as it does in Michael Apted’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” It’s the waters depicted on a painting that swallow up the Edmund Pevensie, his sister Lucy and cousin Eustace Scrubb and whisk them away to a voyage on the finest ship in the Narnian Navy, the Dawn Treader. The ocean surrounding the kingdom of Narnia’s Great Eastern Islands is populated by half-human, half-fish creatures, the luminous-blue Merfolk, who chant hypnotic melodies.
On one of the darker islands, there’s a pool of water that turns anything dipped into it into gold. Meanwhile, the waters closer to the edge of the world are much more ominous, being the source of the Green Mist that makes anything it envelops invisible, as well as the legendary Sea Serpent. Finally, there’s the turquoise wall of cascading water that, we are told, is what separates the world from the kingdom of the lion king Aslan.
Water as an element that harbors good and evil is just one of metaphors of salvation and damnation that we encounter in this enchanting installment of the classic fantasy series written by C.S. Lewis, the late novelist, academic, theologian and apologist for the Christian faith.
Produced by Fox Studios and Walden Media at a fraction of the first two film adaptations after Walt Disney dropped the franchise, it defies financial limitations to present to young people — in time for Christmas — a parable so light and simple in its language, and so creative in its visual rendering that it is in itself a testament to keeping faith in what one believes in.
In the preceding chronicles, “Prince Caspian,” the four Pevensie siblings, whose father was somewhere in Europe fighting the Nazis, were instrumental in ousting Narnia’s cruel king and installing Caspian as the new head, with the help of flamboyant warrior mouse Reepicheep and Aslan. The kingdom had enjoyed several years of peace but now trouble brews with cases of citizens’ abduction and missing lords, and with them the loss of seven swords from Narnia’s Golden Age that have protected the kingdom from harm. Elder sister Susan is away in America while elder brother Peter is cramming for university exam. The adventure takes off when Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) and their whiny cousin Eustace Clarence Scrubb (Will Poulter) are engulfed by the painting’s waves. They are fished out of the water by their friend King Caspian (Ben Barnes) who is sailing with his crew on the Dawn Treader toward World’s End.
Keynes, Henley and Barnes – all gifted and promising judging from their past performances — have grown up with their characters since the 2008 film, with Barnes having a more regal bearing, Edmund evolving into a handsome and confident young man, while Lucy — baby fat still visible on her face and not a great beauty like her sister Susan — entertains fantasizes about romance and dashing older men. Their roles were written so broadly with shallow emotional conflicts, sudden turns of mood and little of the colorful shades of their characters in the previous films that they stand out as the bland elements of this otherwise richly appointed movie. Youngest kid Poulter, his face as sour as lemon and lime and his voice ever haughty, fares a bit better as the obnoxious Eustace but Apted has not reined in his increasingly shrill outburst to a more realistic level.
It gets ‘weirder and weirder’
What the movie lacks in young-star power it compensates with a rich, easy-to-follow story, beautiful images — delivered without loss of richness and impact in the 3D version — and a technical savvy that may not duplicate the achievements of the past movies but manages to still fascinate. As the Narnians pursue their quest for the lost swords of from the Golden Age, a new cast of saviors and villains emerge. “This place gets weirder and weirder,” Eustace says. And lovelier, too.
Leading the images is the Dawn Treader’s figurehead, an ornate dragon with a golden armor breastplate. The creepy yet gentle-acting Green Mist was the simplest to conceptualize and execute. The same goes for the Book of Incantations which Lucy consults to make unseen beings seen, with the letters of the title arranging and rearranging themselves. A new character, Lilliandil (Laura Brent), the daughter of star in retirement Ramandu has a face that, thanks to computer graphic imaging, radiates a special loveliness during her cameo appearance. She is the antidote to the fleeting presence later of the wicked White Witch (the ethereal Tilda Swinton), who comes back with her bag of tempting goodies, this time teasing Edmund with divine status and power.
But three digital creations stand out as true creations of the imagination. The monstrous Sea Serpent is the very face of evil ready to annihilate a victim in its slinky embrace. The bright-eyed dragon into which Eustace transforms for giving in to his greed for gold is something to behold: a swift winged Komodo dragon encrusted in shimmering golden scales, with touches of vermillion and orange. And nothing is on par with the odd Dufflepuds, the sly dwarf inhabitants of magician Coriakin’s island who had invoked a spell to make themselves invisible. They’re always stomping about on just one leg with an oversized foot and are in the habit of perching on the shoulder of another. They’re fun to look at but unfortunately, their screen time is cut short. Maybe we’ll meet them again sometime.
What this movie has in full measure is a sense of place. Echoing S.C. Lewis’s fascination with European mythology and Scandinavian folklore, we are taken to an eerie hall of hanging bells, a royal room of Celtic or Nordic warmth and curiosities, a dark forest where a banquet for Narnia’s lords is frozen in time, and corners of the world we know exist but rarely see.
In the sequence right up to the cruel fate of Eustace, we are taken to the very source of Lewis’s obsession as a teenager, the volcanic, lava-scarred badlands of Iceland. But, as premier movie database Web site IMDb tells us, the shooting locations were actually in Queensland, Australia and White Island New Zealand, a worthy stand-in for the Icelandic island of 130 volcanoes. It must be noted that during the height of this movie’s filming, air travel in Northern Europe was disrupted for weeks because of the ash plumes from the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
Indeed, there is moralizing in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” but none of the proselytizing that we could expect from a major name in the world of religion. When Lewis wrote the story, he was neither in the combative nor contentious mode of a fiery theologian in a pulpit. He was S.C. Lewis, the writer of novels for children, armed with all the care and gentleness the task requires. He even relegated his desire to inspire to his desire to simply entertain. As a movie, it’s not one to look to mainly for inspiration, but for a fun outing, although there is certainly inspiration there. To anybody who asks, I would mention Walt Disney’s “Secretariat” for the uplifting experience in cinema at the moment.
The voice and reason of Aslan accompany the children throughout their journey before he appears to them in the end in the end. Liam Neeson’s fatherly interpretation of the divine figure guides the youths through their follies and the pitfalls, namely some of the seven deadly sins that they commit during their quest.
To envious Lucy, who literally steals a page from the Book of Incantations to become as pretty as her sister, Aslan asks, “What have you done, my child? … You have doubted who you are. Don’t run away from who you are.” But the other characters also utter inescapable truths such as the warning to beware of the tricks the mind plays on a person; and the message that “to defeat the darkness out there you must first defeat the darkness within yourself”; or that “extraordinary things happen to extraordinary people.”
A lot of worldly tips come from the lips (do mice have lips?) of Reepicheep as voiced by Simon Pegg, especially his comic putdowns of Eustace’s high regard for himself, and when he teaches him a lesson about dueling: “Keep your blade up. … Be agile, be nimble. … It’s a dance!”
The movie only becomes theologically complex when Aslan tells the three children that his kingdom lies on the other side of the ocean and that in their world “you’ll know me by another name.” It’s a deeply mysterious and eloquent parting shot from a king whose truth has followed him everywhere in the magical world of Narnia.