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There’s an old dirty joke that goes, “What do French beer and making love in a canoe have in common?”
Answer: “They are both f—— near water.”
That joke applies, minus the profanity, to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Tempest, movies that open on Friday. Literally. Both films are drenched in H20 or are at least aqua-adjacent, taking place on the high seas and islands. And both boast English literary lineage: Narnia is based on novels by C.S. Lewis and Tempest on a drama by William Shakespeare.
Neither film, happily, is a sodden mess. Then again, neither is going to end up on anyone’s list of the best films of the year.
Let’s begin with Narnia. This is an attempt to kick-start the stalled movie franchise based on Lewis’ fantasy series. The first film, 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was a blockbuster but the second, 2008’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, fared less well at the box office. The Walt Disney studio dropped the series, and Twentieth Century Fox stepped in to try to resuscitate it with Dawn Treader.
Consider it successfully revived, but more for kid viewers than adults. This latest movie, presented in 3-D, returns the two younger Pevensie children, Lucy and Edmund, accompanied by a snotty cousin, Eustace Scrubb (what a swell moniker), to the mythical kingdom of Narnia. They reunite with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard the Dawn Treader, a ship, and set out to find the cause of a mysterious green mist that is making Narnians disappear.
With the notable exception of Will Poulter, who is highly amusing as pug-nosed cousin Eustace, no one in the cast makes much of an impression. Director Michael Apted, whose long career ranges from the great 7 Up documentary series to the 1999 Bond film, The World is Not Enough, has made a competent but familiar feeling film. Too often, Dawn Treader plays like just the latest in a long line of recent action-adventure fantasy films featuring the derring-do, sword fights and special effects monsters.
As for the religious content of the movie–C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels are rife with Christian symbolism–it’s more obvious this time than in Prince Caspian. Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the lion Lewis used as a stand-in for Christ, lumbers on for several portentous appearances, and a cross or two appear (check the picture-hanging scene at the very end).
The Tempest is directed and adapted by Julie Taymor, who previously took a run at Shakespeare on the big screen with 1999’s Titus. (She’s currently in the news for attempting to wrestle Spider-Man into shape as a Broadway musical). Her big innovation in Tempest: she gives the play’s lead character a sex change. Prospero, a male in Shakespeare’s drama, here becomes Prospera and is played, audaciously, by Helen Mirren.
Prospera is a royal widow who possesses magical powers. After being banished from her home in Italy, she has for years been living on a deserted island with her now teenage daughter. When a shipwreck–caused by Prospera with help from Ariel, a magic spirit whom she commands–washes up various friends and rivals from Prospera’s past, everyone’s lives begin to change.
This Tempest never achieves the full storm-swept glory of the source material, but there are moments that soar. That’s partly due to Shakespeare’s language–the guy could write–and partly due to some nifty special effects, especially those allowing an almost translucent, shape-shifting Ariel (Ben Whishaw) to zip through sky and water while carrying out his master’s missions.
The acting is a mish-mash of styles, as varied as the island’s landscape, which itself ranges from volcanic rock to sylvan forest to swampland. Best is Mirren, who is scheming, maternal, raging and majestic, often all at the same time. Other Brits in the cast include Whishaw, Tom Conti as Gonzalo, and Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as Trinculo and Stephano, wayward servants who function as comic relief.
Brand brings his own special brand of humor to Tempest and, sorry to say, it doesn’t work. He offers a manic and, at times, even mincing performance that seems as much inspired by Pauly Shore as by Shakespeare. It’s not so much that there’s a right way to do Shakespeare, as that Brand’s is just so downright silly and annoying.