Unlike its well-received predecessors, 2005’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which introduced movie audiences to the beloved characters in C.S. Lewis’ best-selling 1950 novel, and the 2008 sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” based on the second in the series of seven volumes that follow the adventures of teenage children traveling to a fantasy realm to battle evil forces, the latest widescreen cinematic edition, based on the 1952 book, feels feeble and undernourished, with drab use of 3-D effects to boot.
The fictional wonder world of Narnia is again home to Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, reprising their roles) joined by their nasty, insufferable cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), the only character that seems to have any dimension here. Residing in London, the three are washed overboard in their London home by a strange seascape that fills their room with sea water (the best fx sequence in the film, although I did wonder where the fish were) and whisks them to a rendezvous with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and his resourceful but not entirely human crew aboard the titular ship.
Relatively mundane adventures follow, perhaps because returning scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are slumming with an assist from Aussie native Michael Petroni. They craft an amiable roller coaster ride, although there’s a certain lack of adventure in what should be an adventurous journey. And when everyone expects 3-D to enhance the experience, it, instead, drains the color and life out of what should be a radiant encounter with a fantastical world, particularly one captured by award-winning cinematographer Dante Spinotti (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Insider”), now collaborating with director Michael Apted on their third film. Other technicians also have worked with the director on previous efforts (composer David Arnold, editor Rich Shaine), or on earlier Narnia films (costume designer Isis Mussenden), but there seems to be a technical disconnect in this extension of the Narnian tale. Harry Potter never has this problem, although Lewis’ tales can’t measure up to the juggernaut enjoyed by J.K. Rowling’s wizardly adventures, be they in print or on screen.
As for Apted, sure he helmed the big budget James Bond feature “The World Is Not Enough” and worked on several episodes of the costume drama tv series “Rome,” but his best remembered efforts have been in the character-driven “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or as the chronicler following the British class system in the 1964 documentary “Seven Up” and its series of follow-up films that capturing the status every seven years of 14 children growing up in England. (The next installment, “56 Up” is due in 2012.)
There’s barely a wisp of Aslan (Liam Neeson) and the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) in this chapter.
I’m also wondering if the switch to Fox had something to do with the film’s failure. The first two features were distributed by Disney and helmed by Andrew Adamson, who is a producer on “Dawn Treader.” There was a budget dispute with Walden Media and Disney pulled the plug, opening the door for Fox (which runs a greatly adored news network–Not!) to step in.
The best part of the film is the fish-out-of-water relationship that the hysterical 17-year-old Poulter captures in numerous episodes. At first disbelieving of his transport to a world where his cousins are king and queen, he doesn’t take easily to some of the creatures he confronts in Narnia—friendly as they are to Lewis’ readers and the films’ viewers—especially Reepicheep, the swashbuckling mouse voiced by Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Star Trek”), who provides plenty of spunk for a small rodent. This relationship changes and deepens as the film progresses, especially when Eustace has a life-altering experience that threatens his human existence.
There’s enough intrigue about dark and evil islands, seven lords and sword seeking, fire-breathing dragons, blue stars, a cursed green mist, and a very large sea serpent to keep youngsters interested or scared. I suspect most families will (and should) stick to catching up with Disney’s marvelous animated tale “Tangled.”
Unfortunately for this latest episode of Narnian lore, just and valiant don’t seem to cut it if you’re sitting there in the audience, although fans of the books and the movies may not be as bothered as an old fart like myself, who was two when the book was published. For those who enjoy it, the best to you. Episode four, “The Silver Chair,” is in development by Fox and Walden. It will feature more of Eustace, so I’m crossing my fingers.