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There have been some minor issues with some of my screener suppliers since I moved in April. I understand this review comes very far after the original release date (4/8/11), but the disc did not arrive until late last week.

Feature


It’s been three years since the Pevensie children last visited the magical land of Narnia to help Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) vanquish evil. With their older siblings away and approaching adulthood, and a war raging across Europe, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are sent to live with their aunt, uncle and obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). While bickering in Lucy’s room a painting of the ocean comes to life, and leaks water into the room, eventually engulfing the three relatives, and transporting them to Narnia. The children emerge from the water and are rescued by Caspian (now a King), and the crew of the Dawn Treader. Once aboard the ship the reunited friends…and Eustace, embark upon a new adventure.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a flawed, occasionally awkward film, but overall it’s my favourite film in the Chronicles of Narnia series so far. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a handsome production that carried almost zero weight or memorable moments. Honestly, the one thing that always sticks with me from that film is the part of the big battle with the Phoenix. Outside of that and Tilda Swinton’s indelible performance, I struggle to remember anything about it. Prince Caspian was a bit of an improvement in terms of scope, variety and depth of story, but was almost entirely unmagical, overlong, and frankly a burden to sit through. Voyage of the Dawn Treader more successfully mixes all the good things of Lewis’ tales without wasting too much time on the weakness (though Aslan does pretty much state ‘I am Jesus, worship me dammit’ at the end of the film). The problems and strengths mostly lie within the source material. I personally gave up on the series when I was a kid following Prince Caspian, so I’m not exactly an authority on the subject, but from what I can ascertain it’s obvious that Lewis’ original book version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader is particularly episodic. This episodic nature offers the filmmakers a better chance to expand the world of Narnia, and delve into the magic that was so sadly missing from Prince Caspian, but it also hinders the narrative structure. The story feels spotty, but mostly works as a journey to a single end overall. More importantly Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the first Narnia film that doesn’t feel like Lord of the Rings for kids, or another failed Harry Potter fill-in. Finally we’re experiencing a new world, not the remnants of another.

Besides finally finding a tonal balance, this episode marks the first time the series has balanced its plot and runtime. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe felt thin, even in its extended edition, while Prince Caspian felt eternal, and never really earned its length. Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes great time through its convoluted, plot-heavy story while only occasionally skipping too quickly over anything. Having finally seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One the day of this writing, I can’t help but compare the pacing of both films, and notice that the first 12 minutes of Dawn Treader covers about the same amount of actual story information than almost any 45 minutes slice of Deathly Hallows. The source material, and its efficient adaptation are mostly to blame for the increased quality, but I’m thinking the director change-up didn’t hurt either. The last two films (not to mention the first two Shrek films) are well enough made, but as director Andrew Adamson doesn’t take many chances, and mostly rests his vision on the shoulders of better films. His action direction is consistently impressive (much better than the similarly endowed Chris Columbus), but otherwise he’s just as unmemorable as his films. Michael Apted might not seem the most obvious choice for the job of continuing the series – he’s not exactly a rising talent (in the business for going on 40 years), his best films aren’t exactly groundbreaking, and his biggest film to date ( The World is Not Enough) is borderline the worst Bond film ever – but a solid, workman like director was apparently exactly what the series needed.

Still more of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of the three young leads. Four if you count Ben Barnes as Caspian. The production is quite lucky that Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes have grown into good little actors. I wasn’t particularly smitten with either mini-thesp in the other two films, but I have been won over here. Henley fills the role of the meek on the outside, strong on the inside youngest child, and even believably looks the part, unlike so many ‘plain’ young actresses who look like they stepped out of a perfume ad. I buy her struggle, and am rooting for her victory. Keynes has a higher hill to climb. He has to convincingly grow from the skeezy traitor, to the whiny little brother, and finally blossom as a young man ready to lead other young men into battle. The subtext ensures that the audience is never fully convinced Edmund isn’t going to betray his friends again, and Keynes is mostly successful in playing the part as both the hero and the suspect without sacrificing too much of the more important of the two (the hero). Eustace is, of course, obnoxious, but what could’ve been an entirely worthless character is rendered relevant, and at times almost likable thanks to Will Poulter, a young actor worth keeping an eye on following this, and his turn in Son of Rambow. Eustace’s relationship with Reepicheep the rat (this time voiced by Simon Pegg instead of Eddie Izzard) also assists in bringing some charm to the character. The latter of these interactions also reveal some effective (if not occasionally sloppy ) character animation.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The most fascinating side note concerning Voyage of the Dawn Treader has almost nothing to do with the successes or failures of the film. Correct me if I’ve missed something, but I believe that this is the first time in film history that a major tent-pole property has changed distribution studios between sequels with the original cast and major crew in tact (Disney was disappointed with the box office receipts of Prince Caspian, and after disputes with Walden, Fox picked up the reigns). In fact, the closest examples I can think of are Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, which is far from a major property, the Terminator movies, the first of which wasn’t even kind of a tent-pole picture, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which was still produced by Lucasfilm, but released with distribution assistance from Warner Brothers rather than 20th Century Fox. Something similar almost happened with The Hobbit, but New Line is still involved under their parent studio, and by the time that film is finally released it will have a decade between films. I suppose Walden Media is still the chief studio in charge, which ensures some basic continuity.

Occasionally the film does look a bit cheap (practical effects look good, digital effects are touch and go, and sets, though handsome, can appear a bit flimsy), but it’s mostly commendable how much smaller this budget (around $150 million) is following the bloated $225-$230 spent (wasted) on Prince Caspian (plus another $175-plus million on marketing). According to the studio books Dawn Treader was even cheaper than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is startling because budgets usually increase with inflation, and Dawn Treader takes place on the water (though it does feature slightly fewer effects shots than Prince Caspian), a proposition that has spiraled many a production out of control (examples include Titanic, Waterworld, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Apparently it is still possible to create epic sweep without spending a quarter of a billion dollars.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Video


Much like the semi-recent release of Roland Emmerich’s 2012 this 1080p transfer is divided into perfect, gorgeous effects heavy sequences, and muddy practical shots featuring major and obvious problems with blurring and ghosting during movement (this pertains specifically to handheld, close-up shots). This is likely due to the use of the Sony CineAlta F23 digital camera, which like the Panavision Genesis HD Camera used for 2012 and Date Night creates a pretty crummy looking image to my eye. This stuff does look a bit better with a television’s digital smoothing option switched on, but I personally don’t like the look that technology creates (I feel like a dinosaur considering all this talk about 48fps productions, which will likely look just as weird to me). More importantly, I thought the practical scenes looked off when I saw the film in theaters (in 2D), which to me is the bigger issue with the technology. I’ve found the (apparently cheaper) RED system technology much more satisfying (it was used on positively stunning, and more moderately budgeted productions including Winter’s Bone, District 9, The Social Network, and Valhalla Rising). I find that colour quality, contrast, the depth of blacks, and basic detail levels all suffer slightly, and standout against the nearly perfect helicopter shots of the Treader treading the sea, or any scene during the monster battle. Another notable shortcoming here that won’t necessarily ruin the film for most fans is the disc’s 1.78:1 framing. Apparently this is an open matte version of the theatrical 2.39:1 ratio, so there isn’t technically any information missing from the sides. Still, missing information or not, the open matte framing is just less attractive. There are no technical problems like floating boom mics or Frank Oz’s arm springing from Reepicheep’s butt, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint it just looks wrong.

Audio


Voyage of the Dawn Treader comes fitted with an aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix, brimming with life, music and action. There are a handful of truly promo-worthy sequences throughout this strong track, and most of these revolve around sea-born battle and creature heavy sequences. The climactic sea serpent attack is probably the scene you’ll want to utilize when showing off your amazing, expensive sound system. Monsters roar, sailors shout, weapons clash, waves crash, and the very foundation of the ship itself is crushed with surround sound cracks, and LFE shudders. But I’m also partial to the menacing ambiance of Goldwater Island, where volcanoes threaten to burst through the earth’s crust at any moment. Another special, and more delicate moment comes just before the bombastic dragon vs. sea serpent fisticuffs, when the sinister green mist wraps the crew in doubt and loathing. The closest I can come to a complaint is that the center channel sounded a bit softer than the others, and is occasionally lost in the noise of the action. At the same time, Liam Neeson’s vocal performance is consistently presented as bassy and overwhelming.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Extras


Special features begin with a solid audio commentary featuring director Michael Apted, producer Mark Johnson. Apted begins things strongly, discussing pre-production without going into the politics of the series switch over to Fox. He even briefly notes the change-up in aspect ratio, claiming that he thinks the home video screen should be more ‘intimate’. Johnson doesn’t take the usual producer’s route on the track, and skips over money concerns in favour of discussing the technical, story and character elements. Johnson even speaks for Apted occasionally, such as the instance where we learn from Johnson why exactly Caspian has changed his accent. It seems that Voyage of the Dawn Treader was more of a group effort, which is certainly not an issue, as auteurism doesn’t have a practical place in productions of this size.

The extras are divided by section representing the geography of the film’s adventure. The first substantial location is ‘The Dawn Treader’, which begins with ‘King Caspian’s Guide to the Dawn Treader’ (4:10, HD), and interactive, five part exploration of the title boat. ‘The Secret Islands: Untold Adventures of the Dawn Treader’ (7:20, HD) is a semi animated look at Prince Caspian’s adventures without the Pevensie kids, narrated by Ben Barnes. The section is wrapped up with four ‘Fox Movie Channel Presents’ featurettes: ‘In Character with Liam Neeson’ (5:00, SD), ‘In Character with Georgie Henley and Will Poulter’ (5:20, SD), ‘Direct Effect with Michael Apted’ (6:30, SD) and ‘Making a Scene’ (9:00, SD). These follow the station’s usual featurette model, and are basically EPK sales pieces, which play between movie presentations.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
‘The Dark Island’ begins with short stuff, including ‘Explore the Dark Island’ (:50, HD), ‘White Witch Discovery’ (:30, HD) and ‘Serpent Discovery’ (:40, HD). Things become a little more substantial with ‘Portal to Narnia: A Painting Comes to Life’ (7:20, HD), a dissection of the portal into Narnia sequence with director Michael Apted, producer Mark Johnson, production designer Barry Robison and the pertinent cast members, and ‘Good Vs. Evil: Battle on the Sea’ (10:50, HD), a look at the design and construction of the title boat, filming around the boat (which was never put on water), and all the digital effects that go into the serpent fight.

The more threadbare menus start with ‘Goldwater Island’, which features ‘Explore Goldwater Island’ (:50, HD), a primer on the area, ‘Dragon Discovery’ (1:00, HD), a primer on Eustace’s dragon plight, a trailer, and a digital copy ‘how to’. ‘Magician’s Island’ is another small collection, including ‘Explore Magician’s Island’ (:40, HD), ‘Dufflepud Discovery’ (1:00, HD), and the menu selection for the director and producer’s commentary. ‘Ramandu’s Island’ features ‘Exploring Ramandu’s Island’ (1:00, HD), ‘Reepicheep Discovery’ (1:10, HD), ‘Aslan Discovery’ (1:00, HD), ‘Liliandil Discovery’ (:50, HD), ‘Search for the Seven Swords’ match game (not a lot of fun) and a visual progression of special effects with optional commentary from the director and producer (13:00, HD). ‘Lone Islands’ features ‘Explore Narrowhaven’ (:40, HD), ‘Minotaur Discovery’ (:50, HD), followed by four deleted scenes (4:30), and finishes things off with ‘The Epic Continues’ (2:10, HD), a rather fluffy EPK/trailer. The fact that Disney still holds the rights to the other two film looms heavy, in that this production was not allowed to use pertinent footage when referring to actions seen in the first two films.

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Overall


Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader gets my vote for best film in the three film Narnia series, even if it’s not quite up to the standards I wish we could hold this series too. This is perfectly entertaining, fast moving, fun and occasionally touching filmmaking, I’m just not sure I’m going to maintain my memories of it much longer. This Blu-ray release looks fine, assuming that, unlike me, you don’t share my distaste for the strange look of the digital cameras the filmmakers utilized. The DTS-HD MA sound is spectacular the whole way around, and the extras are decent, though not comparable to the special edition DVD release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, or it's framing.


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