Christian realism energizes Narnia film

  • December 22, 2010
Hollywood has long been looking for a new blockbuster magic series to rival the commercial successes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the string of Harry Potter movies. When C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came to the screen in 2005, many observers thought that the studio bosses had once again hatched a winning idea for a long-running fantasy franchise.

But the pre-Christmas release of the third Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, may have ended forever the dream that Lewis’ four Pevensie children might out-perform Frodo and Harry at the box office. The critics hate everything about Dawn Treader, from the ineffectual use of 3-D (they’ve got a point) to the distinctively Christian message wrapped up in the spectacle.

The critics are wrong. Though it lags in some spots and occasionally gets hasty in the wrong places, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a beautifully told yarn of the sea. It has fine acting by its mostly young stars, even-handed direction by Michael Apted and a terrific computer-generated mouse (the swashbuckling hero Reepicheep).

The film opens, like its two predecessors, in England during the darkest days of the Second World War. The younger Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) — Susan and Peter have gone off to America with their parents — are lodged temporarily with their insufferably snobbish cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter).

Eustace finds very offensive the delight Lucy and Edmund take in old fables and tales, all of which he finds “immature” and somehow slightly dangerous to his own “modern” sensibility. He doesn’t believe in Narnia even when a sea-painting on the wall of an upstairs room suddenly springs open, deluging the children in salt water and sweeping them out onto the Narnian ocean. His comical (to us) response to rescue by the wonderfully romantic royal Narnian galleon The Dawn Treader is a demand to see the nearest British consul, who, he believes, will arrange his passage back to “reality.”

Meanwhile, Eustace and the Pevensies soon learn from Caspian (Ben Barnes), whose ship The Dawn Treader is, that the reality of Narnia is as dire as that of England during the Blitz, and even more morally sinister. An evil force, somewhere out of the edges of the ocean, is penetrating the peaceful Narnian world with a deadly green mist. This magical fog has the effect of revealing to each person his or her secret desire, then fanning it into an all-consuming fire. The task of the Dawn Treader’s crew, and of the children, is to find the source of the lethal mist and destroy it.

Before they do, however, every soul aboard the Dawn Treader is touched by the green mist. Lucy finds herself almost engulfed by lust for personal beauty, Edmund by the hunger for gold and the power to enslave others that gold presumably imparts.

It doesn’t take long for any viewer to figure out that this movie is about temptation, portrayed unflinchingly as the malignant domination that Christian imagination understands it to be. Apted pulls no punches in his depiction, and he is true to Lewis’ story in doing so. The film does not suffer artistically from this powerful dose of Christian realism, as some critics have maintained.

Such realism, in fact, gives Dawn Treader its persuasive energy; it makes us feel that the story is very much about the real world we live in. Every adult, after all, has experienced exactly what the children feel when they are seized by the green mist — the deceptive exhilaration, the allure of the “unconventional,” the deceitful, delusional sense of daring imbued by every temptation to sin.

I loved The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I recommend it as welcome relief from the other “holiday” fare Hollywood is serving up this season. If the film feels a little too close to home for comfort, you’re getting the point. Narnia, after all its fiery dragons, terrifying sea monsters, magicians and elves have been stripped away, is the moral playing field on which we struggle, sometimes lose, and often win with the help of God.

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