Director Michael Apted helms a more magical, more humorous ‘Narnia’

By Tray Butler

For the AJC

LONDON -- Narnia has invaded England. Taxi-sized portraits of Aslan the lion dominate the display of holiday lights along busy Regent Street.

Even Queen Elizabeth II turned up recently at the world premiere of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” -- and reportedly shed a few tears during the poignant finale.

Depending on how this weekend goes, Queen Elizabeth might not be the only one crying over Narnia.

The franchise’s first movie, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” raked in an impressive $745 million in 2005, but its 2008 sequel, “Prince Caspian,” was considered a failure (even after banking $419 million). The underperformance of “Caspian” caused Disney to jump ship, prompting production company Walden Media to team up with 20th Century Fox for “Dawn Treader.” Should this film sink, so goes the franchise.

Director Michael Apted said although the rift with Disney was “a nightmare” at the time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the latest movie.

“The transition was easy, in a sense,” Apted said. “We’d already prepared the visual look and feel of the movie. We knew how we were going to do it. ... And Fox was really smart about everything. They knew this had to be a Christmas film.” (“Wardrobe” hit theaters in December, while “Caspian” floundered with a May release.)

Based on the third book in C.S. Lewis’ much-acclaimed children’s series, “Dawn Treader” finds the two younger Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) transported again to the enchanted realm of Narnia, this time via a magical painting of a ship. Accompanied by their bratty cousin Eustace (Will Poulter, in James Cagney mode), the children join the crew of the dragon-shaped ship the Dawn Treader on a fantastic quest to find seven lost lords of Narnia.

Apted, known for such modern classics as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” said “Dawn Treader” offered him the chance to make exactly the sort of movie he enjoys.

“I always look for a kind of film that has a big epic look to it but has a small emotional story in the middle of it,” he said. “The emotion drives the action, and the action is fed by the emotion.”

Though “Dawn Treader” overflows with swashbuckling action, augmented by abundant CGI imagery and a fine 3-D conversion, the plot pays ample attention to the emotional lives of its characters. The kids each encounter their own version of “Temptation Island” at sea, making for a redemptive story arc sure to please the Christian moviegoers who helped make “Wardrobe” a success.

“It’s a struggle,” Apted said of the religious themes in the book. “I didn’t want to make it so Christian specific. I do love the idea of making a film that’s spiritual in this day and age.”

He conceded the Lewis estate wanted the Christian ideas played up even more, while Fox probably wanted less. Fox, however, has made a significant push to market the film to faith-based media, a clear sign of another lesson learned from “Caspian.” Apted said Disney likely missed the mark by ignoring the megachurch audience.

“Frankly, ‘Caspian’ is a dark book and a pretty tough book. There was a definite decision to make the third film more magical, slightly more humorous, than the second film.”

Which is not to say that adapting “Dawn Treader” was smooth sailing. The source material is an episodic odyssey full of bizarre situations: plenty of fun for a pre-adolescent’s imagination, but not so much for a Hollywood epic.

“We realized pretty early on that we could not adapt this book into a movie because there was no spine,” Apted said. “We needed some reason, some danger, some threat to Narnia, to make the whole thing have some purpose.”

The answer came via Lewis’ next “Narnia” title, “The Silver Chair.” That book’s sinister green mist, an evil talisman of the Northern Witches, becomes the primary villain in “Dawn Treader” and opens the door to the film’s climactic battle with a truly atrocious sea serpent.

“I think we’ve done the whole franchise a favor,” Apted said of the green mist. “It will make Part 4, if they make it, more organic.”

For now, the question of further sequels in the “Narnia” series rests entirely on a different sort of green, the all-powerful box-office haul. Apted said he’d be happy to take on “The Silver Chair,” if it should happen.

“It would be great, except Will -- Eustace -- will probably be 9 feet tall by then!”