Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Epic Syndrome and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

He's an uppity, precocious, intolerant English schoolboy! He's a fierce, quixotic, swashbuckling talking rat!  Together, they travel the land seeking treasure, adventure and excitement wherever it may be!  Eustace and Reepicheep!  Muppet and Mouse!  Runt and Rodent!  Faffer and the Gay(ly clad) Mouse!

I'll tell you my about favourite scene in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  It's the duel between Reepicheep and Eustace Scrubb.  It was a battle of wits and a tussle of egos as an arrogant, snotty braggart of a child is challenged by a cavalier talking mouse.  The fight was energetic, fun, endearing, and engaging: two characters were having it out not just physically, but mentally.  On one side Eustace, one of those insufferable children who claim to have absolute insight and cannot conceive of any reality outside the ones they deign to recognize; on the other, Reepicheep, a romantic, adventurous, wild-hearted swashbuckler ever eager to find new wonders and experiences, constantly challenging himself.  Two archetypes at odds with each other in a whimsical miniaturization of the heart of the Narnia story: the juxtaposition of reality with fantasy, and the conflict which arises within and without.

If Michael Apted could've just taken that scene and figured out how to apply it to the rest of the film, as well as take hints from the best parts of the previous films,  Dawn Treader could've been great.  As it is, it's just ok: not bad, but man, just a bit more boldness and daring...

Generally, my experience of the Narnia films so far can be encapsulated in the phrase "it was ok, but they could've been really good."  As is so common with many big-budget films, Narnia's producers weren't willing to take certain kinds of risks.  Sure, they might take financial ones, but rarely creative ones.  The Narnia films have been in the shadow of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it's plain to see that Walden Media were desperate to make the Next LotR.  Of course, why should they go for the Next Anything, when they could be going for the First Anything?

There are moments in the films that work incredibly well.  The sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is a particular highlight: it's a horrific scene evoking a distilled nightmare of pagan ritual and demonic triumph, worthy of Machen or Blackwood in its heathenistic frenzy.  Hideous, misshapen heads starkly illuminated by firelight, an unearthly woman who is not so much human as she is Other, the mad cacaphony of the drums reaching a chilling crescendo.  With a few tweaks it could be a scene from "The White People" or "The Black Stone."  The sheer atmosphere of malignant, domineering, insidious evil was powerful and oppressive, and in my opinion, more effective than any of the evil beings in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.* That one scene shows the potential of the Narnia films to be more than simple Hallmark-level, sub-Lord of the Rings family fare, and that it could be emotionally and mythologically resonant.

Similarly, the scene with the proposed resurrection of the White Witch in Prince Caspian was laden with a sense of dread, that one was dangerously close to a precipice that threatened to engulf all around.  The sort of grim foreboding one might get when someone suggests engaging presidential directive 59.  Just a shame they chose to include Swinton again: the mere memory of the White Witch was powerful enough without actually getting her to pop by for a cameo, and given the films' fixation with including Tilda in every Narnia film, there's a danger of overexposure diluting her power when The Magician's Nephew comes around.

So too it is with Dawn Treader, but instead of a scene, it's a performance. Will Poulter makes this film.  The boy is fantastically charismatic, brilliantly funny, and makes any scene he's in a joy to watch.  The boy just captures Eustace perfectly.  This lad's destined for great things, I tell you!  Special mention must also be given to Simon Pegg's voice work for Reepicheep: much as I loved Eddie Izzard's turn in Prince Caspian, Simon Pegg does the character proud in his own fashion.  Izzard's was aggressive and volatile, while Pegg's is more passionate and adventurous.  Two good interpretations of the world's most badass mouse.

The rest of the cast are adequate.  Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes suffer a bit from that self-conscious, reserved, gormless malady that tends to affect child actors as they approach pubescence, though thankfully they aren't as badly affected as Bonny Wright.

Of particular note are two other cameos: William Moseley and Anna Popplewell briefly reprise their roles as Peter and Susan in fairly inoffensive extra scenes.  Edmund's in the shadow of Peter, of course, and they do a weird thing where instead of Lucy wanting to be more beautiful than Susan, she actually wants to become Susan.  As in, look like her.  I think this worked a lot better as subtext, rather than... text. The use of computer morphing techniques to simulate Lucy transforming into Susan struck me as rather unintentionally creepy, especially since the camera spends a good few seconds lingering on Susan's decidedly ungirlish bosom in one scene transition.  It was a bit awkward knowing that this was technically a 15-year-old girl in the body of a 19-year-old. The gorgeous body of a gorgeous 19-year-old, true...

  Ben Barnes for the mums, Anna Popplewell for the dads -
Parental bonus for all!

However, the shadow of The Lord of the Rings is dark and smothering indeed, and like its predecessors, Dawn Treader is awkwardly moulded into something it isn't: only this time, it's really incongruous. Wardrobe and Caspian were both grand struggles between armies, nations and kings, so it's understandable why they'd got for your usual The Fate Of The World Is In Their Hands fare. However, Dawn Treader isn't one of those stories: it's a tale of characters struggling with their inner demons, the battle between good and evil internalized rather than externalized, and the only stakes are the lives of the characters. Going by the Heroic-High-Epic Fantasy versus Sword-and-Sorcery argument (which I still consider an arbitrary and pointless distinction), Dawn Treader is more Sword-and-Sorcery than the High Fantasy Wardrobe and Caspian.

But we can't have that, can we?  What sort of fantasy film has no Big Evil That Needs To Be Destroyed No Matter The Cost, not to mention The Magical Macguffin Which Will Fix Everything?  Well, in their infinite wisdom, Walden/Warner Brothers have decided that this character-driven story just needed to have a villain to defeat - but not just any villain, but some sort of world-dominating power that will stop at nothing until all thelight and love is sucked out of the planet. Then there are a bunch of battles, some magical trinkets to collect and combine like the Rings of Power, and character is sacrificed for plot.

The Big Evil in question is, in theory, a rather clever visual representation of the real source of conflict in the novel.  Every time Lucy struggles with vanity, Edmund with envy, Eustace with greed, and Caspian with pride, there's a sort of Evil Green Misty thing that threatens to overwhelm Narnia.  Presumably this is the Darkness that shrouds The Island Where Dreams Come True (here unimaginatively renamed Dark Island, thus robbing the island of that wryfully ironic title), albeit... green, instead of black. In the hands of a skilled screenwriter, one could turn the internal evils which threaten to undermine the protagonists into a sort of "meta-villain," a personification of the idea of vices, corruption, hopelessness and fear destroying Narnia, evils which can only be thwarted by strength of character. You can't just stab, say, poverty, or greed, or oppression, with a magic sword: you need to defeat them with other means, and are arguably even greater foes than an evil queen or king.  As such, a vague misty presence... kinda works.  Again, in theory.  It's simplistic and not very subtle, but I definitely think there's a nice idea in there.


Unfortunately, the possibility of using the Evil Green Mist for a more unusual type of villain are squandered on its very introduction, where it transpires the slavers of the first island feed boatloads of hapless peasants into the mist.  Why?  How?  Where?  Which?  Dunno.  But it turns out the evil can be defeated by collecting the Seven Magic Sword of Narnia (WhoWhatWhereWhenWhy?) to banish the evil forever.  And so in one fell swoop, a potentially interesting villain - one that can't be defeated with a mere thrust of a sword or the intervention of a godlike lion - was rendered into just another villain to be defeated.  By being stabbed with a magic sword, no less.  Such an unfortunate waste.

This is especially lamentable when one considers that it's pretty transparently an attempt to inject some narrative urgency in the film. Apparently an adventure into uncharted waters with possibly dangerous and hostile islands and their denizens simply isn't enough for the discerning audience member, or something.  This urgency also means most of the islands are conflated: regrettable, but understandable if they wanted the film to clock in under two hours.  Does a children's film have to have some sort of race-against-time in it, that the protagonists must Stop The Big Evil Before It's Too Late?  It's so artificial, and most damning, it makes the film less distinctive from the LotRs and Harry Potters.  Rather than try to ape those films' formulas and coming up short, they could go for something different, and avoid comparisons the film can't - and wasn't meant to - live up to.

That said, an epic Voyage of the Dawn Treader needn't betray the inherent themes of the story: all one has to do is heighten things.  Enhance Lucy's insecurities about her appearance, self-worth, competence and teenage anxieties to the point where the audience truly really feels how confused, frustrated and upset she is.  Intensify Edmund's sense of vulnerability, desire to be taken seriously, and the constant shadow of Peter.  Strengthen Caspian's self-doubt over his mission.  Obviously don't have this go into angst: make these emotions real, resonant, and affecting.  Don't just go for the usual.

Heck, I've even noted places where the film actually softened elements of the book.  Instead of tearing Eustace out of his dragon body, there's a bit of a cheap replacement that still involves tearing and bits of Eustace's body falling off.  Dark Island is nowhere near as terrifying as The Island Where Dreams Come True, and the Evil Green Mist just isn't as menacing as the oblique, vague terror of the Darkness.  For some reason, we don't even get to see the dragon of Burnt-Dragon-Water Island, even its corpse.  I've no idea why not.

A final note: I feel the fact they had Eustace be a dragon for half the film was a bad idea.  In addition to robbing the audience of Poulter's delightful performance, it also removed a significant courageous moment for Eustace's character.  In the book, Eustace braves a sea serpent in a tumultuous sea battle, having gained a few ounces of spirit during his time as a dragon: in the film, he's a dragon.  Sure, the sea serpent in the film looked like a freaking Bhole, but he's still a bloody dragon!  Perhaps it would've been more impressive if the battle betwixt the two draconian beasts amounted to more than a few seconds.  It's the most disappointing battle between two gigantic reptiles since the Tyrannosaurus-Spinosaurus fight in Jurassic Park III.

These guys did it better anyway.

There is a good review here by a Lewis scholar, and while I don't agree on all points, it's at least good food for thought.  I'm intrigued to see what Walden et al do with The Silver Chair, especially considering there's a very different dynamic with Eustace and Jill.  I'd love to see who they cast as Jill Pole: I'm hoping for Saoirse Ronan or Dakota Blue Richards, though they might be too old by the time the film comes around.  I deeply hope they resist the desire to make a romance between Eustace and Jill (can't two straight folk of the opposite gender just be friends?), but given how the films seem obsessed with inserting that sort of thing into the films, I can't help but think it's inevitable.  Either that, or they'll continue their questionable habit of having the female villain seducing the males.  At least I know Eustace'll be great.

Ultimately, I don't know what I think of Dawn Treader as an adaptation: it did a lot wrong, but it also got a lot right.  Not quite an atrocious adaptation like Caspian was, though.  Eustace and Reepicheep were great; the effects were largely successful; Deathwater was eerie and atmospheric; the shore near Aslan's Country was very dreamlike and effective; the sea serpent, while on the Lovecraftian side, was visually interesting; Anna Popplewell and Tilda Swinton delighted me with their presence. I don't think it succeeds in being as "epic" as the producers were probably hoping it to be, and most of the alterations didn't make the film particularly more interesting in the end.  It's a children's film, based on a children's book, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have bite.

Also, I'm now hopelessly in love with Anna Popplewell.

*"But what about Saruman?" I hear you say: well, I would agree, if we were talking book-Saruman, and Film-Saruman was given a chance to flex his evil.  Lee played Saruman to absolute perfection, but because of the way the film was written and the choice of scenes filmed, I was kind of rooting for him.  In contrast, I was not rooting for Swinton's White Witch at all.  While we never got to see the full extent of Saruman's cruelty and ruthlessness in the films (because we totally needed to see Pip'n'Merry horsing about with fireworks), we do see the sinister and frightening lengths the White Witch would go to in spades.  

Look at it this way: Film-Saruman basically surrenders to Middle-earth's Lucifer (or at least the Antichrist), builds an army, cuts down a few trees, builds factories without BSI compliance, manipulates a king through magical suggestion and encourages a horde of barbarians to burn and pillage the people who drove them out of their homelands in the first place.  That's pretty evil.  Film-White-Witch builds an army, freezes the landscape of an entire kingdom over the course of a century (decimating the populace through famine and cold), grooms a young boy to betray his siblings, turns sentient beings to stone, and murders Lion-Jesus in a grotesque pagan sacrifice, wearing his scalp in battle the next day.  That's really evil.


  1. I liked Caspian. It was bad, cheap, unfaithful and ultra-christian... but have a lot of violence!!! In a summer kids movie!!! Actually, I never "liked" Reepicheep. I, actually, FEAR him. He is a Tarantino character.

    I really dont know if I will see the new movie... My friends becomes less geeky with the years...

  2. I liked Caspian. It was bad, cheap, unfaithful and ultra-christian... but have a lot of violence!!! In a summer kids movie!!! Actually, I never "liked" Reepicheep. I, actually, FEAR him. He is a Tarantino character.

    The violence wasn't too bad, it was the stupidity that killed me. Peter deciding to attack the fortress resulted in a neat siege, but ended up making him look like a total numbskull. The way the duel at the end was done made the entire army of Calormenes look like idiots.

    I really dont know if I will see the new movie... My friends becomes less geeky with the years...

    It's a decent film, but you'd likely have to go with friends or children to it.

    also in love with Anna.

    She needs to be in more films.

  3. I haven't seen the third movie, but the first two Narnia movies suffered not from being bad adaptations, but from being based on the Narnia books. I loved the Narnia BBC series as a child, but reading those books a few years ago proved a horrifying experience. I absolutely agree with Tolkien on the subject of Narnia.

    Not trying to sound arrogant here. I honestly wanted to like them, but I thought they were terrible, and the movies upped the ante by being despicable. (And philosophically as anti-Christian as you can get.)

    Still, you're right that there are scenes in the movies that actually work, or almost do; the first encounter with Mr. Tumnus in Wardrobe was delightful.

  4. Not trying to sound arrogant here. I honestly wanted to like them, but I thought they were terrible, and the movies upped the ante by being despicable.

    I can understand the opposition to the Narnia books. I myself can't stand Thomas Covenant, but I won't begrudge anyone enjoying them. Fantasy's weird like that.