The Voyage of the Dawn Treader film (from The Chronicles of Narnia)

I was happy to catch The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader yesterday in the theater. It is a particularly hard novel to adapt as a film, and the filmmakers succeed in making what could have seemed a meandering tale into a successful adventure film that takes us to the heights and depths not just adventure-wise, but also spiritually. However, true to C.S. Lewis’ original, fairy-tale-like style, the “heights and depths” are experienced through the turns of the plot, symbolism, metaphor, and perhaps even allegorical elements, rather than through a deep identification with complex characters. It takes a bit of “digging” to get at what the movie is all about.

Snapshot

A great adventure film for the family with lots of special effects but somewhat limited by the flatness of the characters. In all fairness to the film, though, Lewis doesn’t develop his characters in the books as extensively as he could. Those familiar with the novel might be disappointed, but can also come away with a richer sense of the story’s meaning because of the creative choices and emphases of the filmmakers, including the extraordinarily beautiful visualization which seems faithful to the original vision of Narnia.

The spiritual themes in the book are not ignored but are perhaps a bit oversimplified–made more explicit in the plot, and more implicit with a lack of dialogue and lack of relationships.

Strengths

This is a fun movie, more of a series of adventures of a (mostly) likable team of adventurers rather than a deep character or spiritual study. I was especially struck with the performance of Georgie Henley as Lucy. Her interactions with the animated characters (such as the peerless Reepicheep) were so natural, it was hard to believe “Reep” wasn’t standing in front of her. And a small subplot with Lucy was added that enriches her character’s journey.

Eustace Scrubb (in an excellent performance by Will Poulter) is the whining, unwilling companion of Lucy and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and King Caspian (Ben Barnes). Eustace convincingly undergoes the greatest transformation in a journey that’s not only the most relatable but also the most faithful to the character’s journey in the book. However, it is the animated characters who truly steal the movie. Only when Eustace is transformed into a dragon (after greedily taking and putting on an enchanted gold bracelet) does his inconsolability and his willingness to finally team up with Reepicheep win over our hearts.

And speaking of Reepicheep: the honorable mouse who is unafraid even to step into eternity could not have been better imagined, animated, or voiced. In many ways Reepicheep is the hero of this film.

Limitations

I’m not sure whether to characterize the plot changes as a strength or a limitation of the film. Certainly it made the movie arc easier to follow, and built up the story’s ending into a dramatic, breath-taking fight with a giant sea serpent. But the changes also oversimplified the rich themes of the novel. In a way, the story became a repeat of the struggle of good against evil, rather than a spiritual journey of seeking “Aslan’s country.” However, whether one thinks they are for better or for worse, the plot changes still felt “true” to the world of Narnia.

My main disappointment with the film: the key element that made me love the books is minimized to the point of almost missing. The filmmakers seem to have forgotten or not realized that the heart of the novel–indeed the heart of the world of Narnia–is Aslan. The longing to see Aslan and his involvement in the children’s journey (however clear or hidden) is almost missing from the film entirely, except for the end. After all, as Lucy says at the end of the book: it’s not that she will miss Narnia so much as she can’t bear not to see Aslan again.

With this primary relationship lacking, the character development of the children is superficial, although less so for Lucy and Eustace. (Would Edmund still be struggling with a temptation from the White Witch? I don’t think so!) Caspian has a nice moment at the end, but there’s not much of a build up to it. The lack of the children’s connection to Aslan is where the spectacle of the film overwhelms the deeper story, leaving the movie a bit cold and the characters a bit flat.

How is this film a “window to the soul”?

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a truly entertaining family adventure film with lots of spiritual themes, powerful Christian symbolism, and wonderful examples of making moral choices (both good and bad, and the consequences of both). Director Michael Apted’s Narnia is a wonderful world for children (and children at heart) to develop their moral imaginations.

Those who want to go deeper may wish to re-read the book and watch the film again to unpack some of the symbolism and references to Scriptural passages. (The scene on the beach at the end is a great example. The reference is stronger in the book, but is not entirely lost in the film.)

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Struggle between good and evil
  • Choice/Free will
  • Temptation (and watchfulness)
  • The importance of being yourself
  • Honor
  • Selflessness
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