Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Movie Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Recently, I went out to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I brought my trusty writing notebook with me, and made a tally mark in one of two columns whenever I especially liked or disliked something. Here are my somewhat-disjointed thoughts.

Warning: some spoilers ahead, though not the ending nor too many major plot points.

(I can't say much about actual quality of the 3-D, since it was the first 3-D movie I'd ever seen; I didn't care much for it, it gave me a headache to look at, and seemed very jumpy and constantly whooshing around, but that's only my perspective.)

The overall lack of attention to detail was disappointing. One thing that can endear a movie adaptation to me is when the little things about a book are paid attention to, and included in the movie as tips-of-hats to the author. The Chronicles are full of bits like that, especially descriptions, advice, and useful items to take note of. I first read the Chronicles when I was about 7, but didn't touch them again (though I'd loved them) for almost ten years. In that timespan, I forgot most of the plot details and non-major characters, but what I did remember stuck indelibly. An example of this is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan breathes on the creatures which have been turned to stone- the description of "a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper" has always been in my mind. Its unexplainable absence from, and unimpressive replacement in, the first movie, was one of the only things that kept it from being perfect. How many of you remember similar things you learned or loved from Lewis (like lisping S's to keep from being heard when in hiding, or "the smell of bacon and eggs and mushrooms all frying in a pan")?

One thing I remembered from my first reading of the book was to kick my shoes off if I were ever to find myself in deep water, because it would be easier to swim. This was not included in the movie, and, among other small missing details, contributed to my feeling of something missing. Is this too nit-picky? Some people might think so. Are these details indispensible? That depends on if you're happy to settle for a shallow action movie, or if you want a world to become absorbed in.

If it seems too nit-picky to haggle over the elimination of little things, consider what's included in its stead. For example, the token snow-and-jingle-bells scene so that it could be marketed for the "Holiday Season." But we'd seen that, before, and much better, in the first movie. There were other things in Coriakin's house that I would have enjoyed seeing much more. One of my brothers, who knows the books perhaps better than I do (having memorized vast portions of them all), was disappointed that they didn't have the dufflepud dinner scene, with invisible plates jumping around.

Here are a few observations that I made marks for, in the movie:

--The first thing that made me groan interiorly was the attack of I-Can't-Wait-To-Be-King syndrome. That, probably more than anything else, is what ruined Prince Caspian in my eyes- Peter Pevensie's angst at "losing" a kingdom derailed the entire plot. See, the impression that I got while reading the books was that the Pevensies grew up both physically and, to some extent, spiritually, during their reign in Narnia, and that they retained full memory of this on returning to our world. This would, in my understanding, make them quite mature. Of course they're still kids, to an extent, and they still have growing to do, just as anyone on earth does; throughout the books, the Pevensies undergo struggles that are familiar to all of us. So to me, the constant vying for kingship, dealing with being king/not being king anymore, inability to take orders, and any number of other instances of sheer immaturity, is annoyingly incongruous and severely detracts from the story. I can't imagine anyone with such a juvenile overall attitude towards true leadership being remembered for thousands of years as one of Narnia's greatest kings. That kind of kid needs to be given pushups, with someone's foot on his back.

Interestingly enough, the only place that I can remember contested kingship coming into place in the books is actually the Deathwater scene-- but even then, Edmund declares, "I am one of the four ancient sovereigns of Narnia and you are under allegiance to the High King my brother." A far cry from Edmund (to say nothing of Peter) whining about playing second fiddle to anyone.

--A subcategory of that is Petulant King syndrome- Caspian lashing out in rage, "You insolent fool!" at a slave-trader, instead of prudently choosing to remain silent and anonymous.

--Speaking of slave-traders, guess what? There are no Calormenes. Everyone is vaguely "Mediterranean." This is one of the subtler points in the movie, but I was watching specifically for it. We must be politically correct, my dears. Calormen must be de-Islamified. This could be looking ahead to the fiasco which would be The Horse and His Boy. I'll be writing about this point, and its pros and cons, in depth sometime soon.

--I was relieved that the White Witch (now bilious green) had a much smaller role than the trailers seemed to indicate she would. Several people I know guessed that she only appeared so there would be bigger names in the movie; they're right.

--There was no mention of Narnia being flat, and having ends that one could sail off. I can't imagine why this was cut out; it would have fit perfectly with Eustace's obsession with "facts," and explained to the uninitiated how Narnia can have "ends," anyway.

--I was impressed and pleased that Eustace's line, "I'm a pacifist" and the addition of "Can't we just talk this through?" were included. In a society where weapon-bearers are burned on the altar of Dialogue, it was pleasant to hear it coming from a brat running away from a fight. Also, the boy who played Eustace did an amazing job.

--I missed the mermaids, especially since Lewis's mermaids are so unusual-looking. There were watery humanoids, but I'm still not sure if they were meant to be nymphs or really bad merfolk. They certainly didn't have purple hair and bodies the color of old ivory.

--The scenes with the picture on the wall and entrance to Narnia were breathtaking.

--Oh, and where have I seen glowing blue swords, before?

The single negative point that marred the movie for me was the plot and its pacing. The original book is episodic, but not debilitatingly so. It might have needed a little help getting to the screen, but definitely not a rewrite, and there was simply no need for the majority of the liberties that were taken. Other people have written about this in-depth, notably my friend Mr. André, so I won't spend time repeating if I can help it.

Pacewise, the movie felt rushed. There were lovely panoramic shots of the Dawn Treader skimming over the waves, but besides that, the movie never really slowed to enjoy anything. My Narnia-expert brother was disappointed that they skipped over so many parts that were really from the book. I agreed, and added that they rushed through the parts that they kept.

Take, for example, the Coriakin's Island sequence. The dufflepuds, when visible, got about a minute and a half of screentime. They looked great, and the few lines they got were funny, but the movie barreled along before they could really be enjoyed. Lucy was in and out of Coriakin's wonderful house in no time flat. Worst of all for the plot, it is never explained who Coriakin is, or why in the world they should even listen to him and take his advice in the first place. The effect was of having something that looked like it'd taste wonderful, but then having the next sample shoved in your mouth before you could really savor any of it.

The "improvised" bits of plot, on the other hand, did not work at all for me, especially because they got so much screentime and Importance in comparison with what would've made the movie great. I'm sure there's some way it could've been strung together better than this. The added characters did nothing to enhance the story, and barely gave themselves an excuse for existing.

As for Eustace not unbecoming a dragon sooner...
This undermines the make-it-all-better line that the screenwriters give Reepicheep, when he tells Eustace that "sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people"-- since the only extraordinary things that Eustace subsequently participates in happen while he's a dragon, not an ordinary person. His extended dragonhood also undermines the entire point of his becoming a dragon: in the book, it is a curse and a punishment, the result of his selfishness and greed; as a dragon he becomes a great burden to those responsible for him, and stalls the voyage. He cannot progress in manhood until he has been "absolved" of dragonhood; once he is restored to a repentant human form, he is able to do "the first brave thing he had ever done" in striking a blow to the Sea Serpent. This is not the case in the movie; in dragon form, he is not only not a burden, but even helps the crew out of a few tight situations and clumsy plot points. This could possibly have been explained as good coming out of evil, but instead seemed portrayed as the luckiest thing that could have happened, and great fun, at that.

Oh, and remember Eustace's perfect line, describing his return to humanity? "You know- if you've ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is fun to see it coming away." I loved that, as a kid, because it made perfect sense, and I knew exactly what it felt like. It's been replaced, in the movie, with something like, "It was like a thorn had been pulled out of my foot." I've never had a thorn in my foot, so I couldn't connect, but if it's anything like having a thorn in my hand, it has none of that secret satisfaction that comes of picking at a scraped knee. Also, in the movie's transformation scene, Aslan unfortunately came off looking (to me) like a cat in a litterbox commercial.

By the time the credits finished rolling, I actually had one more tally in the good column than the bad-- but since one of the bad ones was for the entire plot, this is my verdict on the movie, as a whole:

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was better than Prince Caspian, but the good does not outweigh the bad.

Here's André's excellent review.

Also, who didn't take botany? The lilies in the sea were just a bunch of oriental lilies floating on top of the water. In the book, they are clearly aquatic lilies, with "broad, flat leaves." This is like the difference between African and European swallows, folks.


  1. I agree with you in so many ways Mari! It was a good movie, but it didn't quite cut it as a good Narnia movie. But, I did like it a lot better the second time I saw it.. so I think there is something to be said for it. And I did like some of the points that it drew out. But overall, I think they just needed to let you write the screenplay. :P

  2. Excellent review!

    Despite the very compressed nature of the film, and all of the other shortcomings you've pointed out, it certainly could have been worse.

    I'm a HUGE fan of the books, and one who doesn't go to many movies. I didn't read the series until I was an adult.

    The dashing, chivalrous Reepicheep inspired me to write a song several years ago, after reading the book. The primary inspiration was Reepicheep's yearning to travel to Aslan's country at the end of the world, a main theme in the book that, unfortunately, was mostly absent from the movie.

    I pitched the song, "Eastward," to Twentieth Century Fox hoping they would pick it up as a trailer for the movie... but alas it was not meant to be.

    If you’re interested, have a listen here: http://www.nickmilos.com/music.htm

    Will Poulter was outstanding as Eustace!

  3. Speaking of slave-traders, guess what? There are no Calormenes. Everyone is vaguely "Mediterranean." This is one of the subtler points in the movie, but I was watching specifically for it.

    I could've told you that was going to happen. One of the things that threw me watching Prince Caspian was that he was a) too old and b) looked vaguely Mediterranean. Partly thanks to the illustrations in my version of the books, I had expected him to be about 12 and blonde. I figured that the age thing was on account of wanting to use the same actor in the Dawn Treader, where Caspian is more like 18 or 20. (I need to reread the books, I'm going by vague impressions rather than textual evidence.) I was afraid that the race/coloring thing was for precisely the reason you mentioned here...it would be horrible to have the "good guys" and the "bad guys" be different races, especially to be Caucasian and Middle Eastern, respectively. They have to meet in the middle and get all muddled together. I look forward to your more detailed treatment why doing that is a bad idea.

  4. Courtney- oh, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed seeing the movie. I'm sure if I saw it again, I'd manage to ignore the annoying parts and enjoy the good ones even more. ^_^

    Nick- thanks for reading. I would've liked to see more of Reepicheep, too; André's review that I linked to talked a lot about the Reepicheep angle, so I didn't go into it.

    Megan- I still think of "Prince Caspian" really being called "Inigo Montoya." I'm still thinking about what I'm going to write in my analysis of that; I have a few ideas, including one that they could use that might make the movie not *quite* so bad. But still not as good as it might be... h'm.