A painted ship upon a painted ocean
(The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Michael Apted, US, 2010, 115mins)
Though it may read as disingenuous, no cinema patron should estimate the amount of effort it takes to make a perfectly bland blockbuster; as flat as a still ocean and pioneering, in the sense that its synthetic vistas and passionless players, somehow plasticise the imagination; that’s both ours and that of C.S Lewis, who one imagines would be unmoved by his own story, were he alive to see this adaptation.
Lewis’ odd confluence of Christian, Roman and Greek myth might have been fertile territory for big-budget extravaganzas if the filmmakers had only the courage to add some imagination of their own. Unfortunately we’re left to wonder what visionary directors like Gulliermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón might have done with the same material while watching a series which never had any ambition other than to appeal to the Disney demographic.
This is a series that reminds you what corporate cynicism looks like when unchecked by creativity. The instructive comparison is with Chris Weitz’s moribund adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, retitled The Golden Compass for cinema release. The issue with Pullman was his novel’s critique of religion, which was duly stripped out to appease America’s Christian right. This was the brain of Pullman’s story and it was little surprise that without it, the movie version was dead from the neck up, badly underperforming and scuppering a planned trilogy of films. Few wept for the lost sequels. Audiences that remember this episode in fantasy cinema could be forgiven for initially scratching their head at the success at Adam Adamson’s insipid The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It was hugely successful, despite its lack of magic, but then Lewis’ Narnia stories have sold 100 million copies and if that can’t put arses onto filthy, coke and salsa stained seats, what good are parents and their childhood memories? Those on God watch however saw another reason for the huge box office, namely that the naked Christian allegory was far more palatable to that unknowable amorphous mass sometimes called the American public.
The curious thing about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is how a story with such odious undertones can feel so safe and reassuring. I wondered if it was those years of Sunday school I endured as a child or the priest that told that me that anyone who didn’t believe in God was “a bloody fool”, an argument that made more sense when he had the naked flame from a roman candle warming my genitals. Catholic guilt runs deep you see and nothing stokes it more than renouncing your faith. To the atheistic eye, already sporting a raised eyebrow thanks to C.S. Lewis’ late in life conversion to Christianity, that fallacious flip, it’s an egregiously sinister piece of storytelling with an irrational and ultimately thought terminating message.
Eustace, the insufferable cousin of the Penvensie children is Lewis mocking his naïve childhood self who foolishly eschewed religious belief and was subsequently regarded as an idiot by the adult he became. Faithfully recreated with the right amount of arrogance and cowardice by Will Poulter, he’s a boorish buzzkill who dismisses cousins Lucy and Edmund as fantasists. While they put their faith in a magical realm and a martyred big cat, a version of Jesus Christ that you can stroke and who had the decency to die with a child friendly lack of gore, Eustace, who not for nothing sounds like useless, fills his head with information, in fact he’s positively drunk on facts.
His visit to Narnia naturally cures him of his rationality, though not until the epilogue, as that would have robbed the filmmakers of their opportunity to use his cynicism to undercut the stories fantastical elements. Lewis was savvy in employing Eustace as both a way in for new Narnia visitors and as a surrogate for endearing them to the stories religious themes. Of all the children in the story he suffers the most, being mocked and goaded for much of it, transformed into a dragon and finally, having discovered his backbone and embraced Aslan’s disciples, saved by, you’ve guessed it, the roaring Christ. Initially suspicious and hostile to the Penvensies, he’s a fully paid up member of the clan at the close, cock-a-hoop at the prospect of returning to the world of talking mice and minotaurs (which he duly does in The Silver Chair).
If Voyage of the Dawn Treader gives you plenty of time to contemplate the message that’s been rammed down your throat, not least the manner in which it’s repackaged as a celebration of our childhood imagination, it’s because there’s so little else to hold the attention. It’s a film that manages to be dull without being boring, which is a difficult balancing act, thanks in part to reasonable pacing and a surfeit of incident. What’s lacking is any sense of jeopardy or surprise, which coupled with the inorganic visuals and anonymous score fatally anchor the ship and her crew in a sea of indifference.
Technical failings aside it’s the film as sermon that’s predominant. Watching a mouse enter the Kingdom of Heaven is a strange way to spend an afternoon and you might imagine, harmless enough, but for families that don’t say grace before meals and go nowhere on Sunday except their living room to catch up on TV, it will seem heavy handed and, given that it’s targeted at the little ones, an unwelcome missive from a world arguably more fantastical than anything C.S Lewis could have imagined.