The Chronicle of Narnia:
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Reviewed By Malcolm Maclachlan
Here’s an odd statistic. According to a 2005 survey, 43 percent of people in the United Kingdom couldn’t identify what Easter celebrated (Jesus returning from the dead, and no, I didn’t have to look it up).
Is this true? Would Americans do that much better? I’m not sure, but it did remind me of how different Europeans seem about religion, especially compared to growing up in the deep South. During a semester abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1990, I asked an English friend about this. “Religion is mainly something old people do,” he said, shrugging when I asked if anyone in our generation still went to church. If anything, my experience of my sister marrying an Italian has reinforced my impression that most Europeans under 60 are so indifferent to religion that they can’t even muster the energy to be hostile towards it (but what great churches!).
Which made it feel kind of odd to be religiously pandered in a film where nearly everyone speaks with a British accent. When the Narnia books were still just books, the Christian symbolism in them was certainly talked about. But since they’ve become big budget movies, it’s become a full-blown marketing strategy. HarperCollins is pushing movie-themed reprints of the books through Christian retailers. There’s a website, NarniaFaith.com, set up to help pastors who want to deliver Narnia-themed sermons.
Keep in mind that the last movie in the series, 2008’s “Prince Caspian,” lost $81 million – and lacked the current promotional strategy. Now it’s hard to know where a corporate marketing effort ends and where the independent Christian blogosphere takes over, especially since I don’t know the terrain well. But it seems a bit like once that “We really care” message was sent to the Christian market – which argues, correctly, that not much Hollywood does is aimed at them – the unpaid media seems to take over.
Predictably, audiences like this one better than critics do. The most obvious thing wrong with this film, as a film, is the special effects, which range from the adequate to the embarrassingly bad. The ship itself looked really cool, but the fight scenes somehow feature lots of swords and no blood. But what really got me was the nagging sense that something was missing. But what? At first I was hoping for Jack Sparrow to wander in and start hitting on everyone, but that wasn’t it.
As the proceedings meandered towards the climax, it finally hit me. There was no bad guy. No cackling/sniveling/wisecracking jerk to liven things up. No evil deeds you could connect to an actual person or monster you’d want to get revenge on. The closest we get is self-centered cousin Eustace, amusingly (at least once) pronounced derisively as “Useless.” But even he is now the subject of sermons, for his predictably overcoming of his non-team-player tendencies.
The battles mainly seem to be internal. Besides a few Muslim-looking slave traders early on, the closest we get is a misty, mysterious, and badly-animated force that gets into people’s minds and makes their fears come to life. Fair enough. An earlier reader might keep in mind that the child heroes are living through a very particular time in British history, World War II, when the civilian population was mostly safe, at least if you weren’t in London during the Blitz. But what did threaten it was very unpredictable and psychologically traumatic – surprise bombing raids, and, towards the end when the German air force was no more, unmanned V1 rockets that would come shooting across the English Channel and could land anywhere, a death lottery from an opponent who had already effectively lost.
But the World Wars also marked a transition in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, from an era when religion was one of the most powerful forces in society to one where it was mainly reserved for weddings, funerals and giving “old people” a place to sit on Sunday. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll (think Field or Pew) found that only 38 percent of Brits believed in God, while one in five were overtly atheist. European politics are essentially devoid of religion. I’m guessing I know which way these numbers have moved in the half decade since.
Maybe it’s because the World Wars market a time of decline for Europe even while they marked our ascent. Perhaps it’s because the major churches were affiliated with the now-discredited governments and leaders (proof that government can’t do anything right, from a certain perspective). Still, it’s odd in this modern age to watch films based on books over half a century old and so steeped in religion but set during the period right before all of that came apart in the flood of Democratic socialism and falling birth rates.
You might notice I’ve said very little about the film. I think that’s partly because I lack the language and experience to decrypt many of the coded messages. It was fun to watch rat-swordsman Reepicheep hang five into heaven (though, from a sequels perspective, less fun to watch the only vaguely interesting character disappear for good). And I hated how Aslan – “In your world you will know me by a different name” – comes in and fixes everything whenever the situation seemed hopeless.
The message seemed to be that if you’re on the right side and do your best, everything will turn out fine. Maybe it’s an uplifting message to send to kids. But, at least by the standards of this world, it’s also a complete lie.