— by CAM SMITH —
My relationship with the “Narnia” franchise has been a rocky and tumultuous one, alternately filled with moments of bitter resentment, fanciful amusement, weary dismissal and heartfelt admiration. Honestly, I can’t think of another major property that has been more disconcerting to determine my definitive stance on than the literary and cinematic adventures set in C.S. Lewis’ creature-filled fantasy-land.
For the record, I’ve never made it the entire way through a single one of the seven celebrated young adult novels. There was a meager attempt made, around the age of 11, to read “Prince Caspian,” but it was promptly aborted in favor of the Hardy Boys and “Tom Sawyer” (to be fair, I’ve never been a fan of fantasy literature, no matter how brilliant. Although I did later undertake and enjoy Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” “The Fellowship of the Ring” worked on me like a sleep-aid). Likewise, the stuffy weekly British television program “Chronicles of Narnia” — which aired on YTV here in Canada — was, alongside “M*A*S*H,” at the top of my childhood list of “Most Boring Shows EVER!!!”
I unconditionally adored the 1979 animated version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I still fondly recall joyfully immersing myself in its delightful other-worldly narrative multiple times over the course of my impressionable years.
The recent film adaptations have been equally hit-or-miss. The first chapter, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” was one of the best post “Lord of the Rings” fantasy epics. It was a colorful and creative mixture of mythic storytelling and high-concept effects work, boasting some thrillingly well-staged battle scenes and an iconic villainess-for-the-ages in Tilda Swinton’s White Witch. It was an ideal family entertainment that, aside from the odd overly talky patch, provided exactly what it should for both wide-eyed young ‘uns and adults burnt out on middling kiddie-fare.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for “Prince Caspian,” a turgid, wooden mess which stripped away the first film’s countless charms and haphazardly replaced them with gaudy, expensive CG, soul-less violence and, worst of all, Ben Barnes. I abhorred the flick and didn’t hide that fact in my venomous review, which, to my complete astonishment, led to me being bombarded for days with heap-loads of vicious, insulting hate-mail from a considerable swarm of infuriated “Narnia” lovers. It was my first real experience of being on the receiving end of passionately negative reader-feedback and it was a doozy.
Yet, my grudge wasn’t against the franchise or its sizable fan-base, but rather the direction that the film series was taking. With director Andrew Adamson evidently not up to the major task of expanding the cinematic universe into anything suitably awe-inspiring, “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies appeared to be headed nowhere fast. Plus, with half of the four children not scheduled to appear in the planned “Caspian” follow-up “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” — and the bland presence of Barnes’ destined to grow — there was a considerable risk of audience interest waning.
However, these concerns suddenly seemed irrelevant when the final returns came in, with the $225 million-costing “Caspian” earning only $140 domestic and $278 international — not a complete train-wreck, but a seriously underwhelming 40 percent-ish less than the first installment — and suddenly the prospect of a third entry seemed somewhat improbable, despite the fact that pre-production was well under way with Michael Apted in the director’s chair.
Then, to add even more insult to injury, Disney announced that they were unceremoniously dropping the franchise like a hot, stinking potato. It was a dark day for the denizens of Narnia and their legions of loyal boosters.
Would another studio dare to step in and, Aslan the Jesus-lion-like, reincarnate the flat-lining series? Would the Pevensie children ever see their wondrous journey fulfilled? Would Ben Barnes ever get to deliver a performance on the level of — at the very least — Hayden Christensen? These burning questions remained hanging in the air as time stood exasperatingly still.
And then a savior stepped in. 20th Century Fox — the klutzy creators of the classic filmic works of fantasy “Eragon,” “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising,” “City of Ember” and “Jumper” — agreed to foot the tab on “Dawn Treader” and keep the series afloat. While this news pleased the distressed devotees, those more in-the-know knew well-and-good that this acquisition was unlikely to be the metaphorical positive kick-in-the-ass that the franchise so badly needed. Instead, it seemed likely that things were only fated to get worse considering the studio’s predilection for butchering geek niche properties beyond all recognition (ask any fanboy how they feel about Fox’s “Aliens Vs. Predator” series or their slate of Marvel films, which consists of “Daredevil,” the two “Fantastic Four” flicks and the “X-men” franchise, and you’re likely to get an earful of earth-scorching profanity).
On Nov. 25, three new “Dawn Treader” production photos popped up on the movie’s official Facebook page, showing Barnes’ Caspian, Georgie Henley’s Lucy and the awesomely named Skandar Keynes’ Edmund aboard the titular oceanic craft. The shots looked vivid and rich but were, frankly, kinda lame as far as sneak peek photos go.
Certainly, I have a modicum of trust that Michael Apted can pull some good performances from his cast. He’s a noted actor’s director — with a resume that includes “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Nell,” “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Class Action” — and will hopefully bring some dignity and majesty back to “Narnia.” Slightly troubling, though, is his lack of experience in terms of crafting big-budget, massive-scope spectacle, with his only real foray into Blockbuster-land being the decade-old James Bond vehicle “The World is Not Enough.” While it’s never smart to write-off a gifted auteur, I remain slightly dubious that Apted is the right man to save this barely-treading-water enterprise.
With a ginormous-sized story to tell, involving the two younger Pevensie kids, along with their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), reuniting with now-King Caspian to take part in an Aslan-ordered sea-based journey in search of the seven Lost Lords of Narnia, this next film will need to be both seriously massive-in-scale and intimately character-driven to help restore the luster of “Lion,” as well as capture the notice of a movie-going populace more interested in boy wizards and teenage vampire romances than the wholesome escapades of a vaguely Greek-sounding monarch, his youthful British buddies and an animated messiah Lion voiced by Liam Neeson.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait almost exactly one year — until Dec. 10, 2010 — to find out whether “Narnia” can regain its magic mojo or have the book permanently closed on it. You can mark me down as skeptical but curious. I’d like nothing better than to be able to once again enjoy an excursion into that faraway land, with its cheerful fauns and throat-cutting field mice, and maybe, just maybe, an enchanted sea voyage — rife with new opportunities for exhilarating miraculous visuals and a less-frantic change of pace — is exactly what the movie doctor ordered.
Are there any “Narnia” fans in the house who’d care to share their views on the series? Did anyone else share my intense dislike for “Prince Caspian”? Were you partly responsible for sending me mean-spirited emails? Chime in on the comment section and make your heroic voices heard, my fellow sharp-eyed and pure-hearted cinephiles!
Follow Cam Smith on Twitter at http://twitter.com/camspcepisodes.