BBC Children’s Classics: Prince Caspian / The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader Review
What with Walden Media releasing The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian in the next month or so, It's only fair that the BBC re-release their version as well. Given that there will be many who, with a sense of revisionism that would have shamed Stalin, will now dismiss these versions as being somewhat shabby what with their simple effects and rather innocent performances, I'm glad they've done so, proving that they stand up very well. And, indeed, all the better if you remember them from when they were first shown in the late-1980s.
Unfortunately, though, I wasn't one of them. For this viewer, childhood experiences of The Chronicles Of Narnia began and ended with the Bill and Steven Melendez version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and it wasn't until reviewing that title was a comment posted as regards the BBC's Chronicles Of Narnia. Only thereafter, did I begin to catch up with the these versions of the stories and, very much later and on something of a Fighting Fantasy-inspired trip into sword'n'sorcery nostalgia, did I begin reading the books. And enjoyable though they are, they can be a bit of a trudge and the sermonising of CS Lewis is inescapable. The BBC look to be very wise in trimming these two books down to a more manageable running time, not so much pruning Prince Caspian down to less than an hour but cutting great lumps out of it in order to bring it in to size.
Prince Caspian was first shown in November 1989 and sees King Miraz and Queen Prunaprismia plotting against their nephew Caspian. Following the birth of their own son, the king and queen no longer have any use for Caspian. Late one night, his tutor warns him that his life is now in danger and, fleeing the castle, he escapes into the forests under the protection of Trumpkin, Trufflehunter and Nikabrik. But King Miraz's troops are close behind and Caspian must decide to live a life in exile or to stand and fight in a war that will decide what becomes of Narnia. Meanwhile, the four Pevensie children are waiting at a train station when they are magically called back to Narnia. Their castle at Cair Paravel lies in ruins and they seem to have been forgotten about. In the woods, they chance upon Trumpkin while Lucy hears Aslan calling to her when she is sleeping. It is time for the kings and queens of Narnia to confront those who claim the throne.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (shown in December 1989), only Lucy and Edmund return but this time they bring their useless cousin Eustace with them. They arrive in Narnia by splashing down in the sea aside Caspian's ship the Dawn Treader, out of which they are pulled by Caspian and his crew of hearty sailors. Onboard the Dawn Treader and in spite of Eustace's endless complaining, Lucy and Edmund listen to Caspian's plan of sailing the seas of Narnia in search of the seven lords. To seek them out, the Dawn Treader will have to sail through dangerous waters before reaching the very end of the world while its crew will face piracy, slavery, a wild dragon and an army of invisible warriors.
Of course this version of Prince Caspian is going to be a lot less spectacular than the upcoming Walden Media release. Even the printed advertisements for Prince Caspian have more razzle-dazzle to it than this 1989 production by the BBC but, to be fair, that's not really the point. Like The Box Of Delights and like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe before it, this series gets by more on charm than on action or special effects with various locations around England making do for Narnia, of the warm tones of Ronald Pickup making Aslan sound very grand indeed and of Warwick Davies dressed as a giant (and rather fearsome) mouse.
Armed with a HD camcorder, a laptop and some video editing software, your sons, nephews or neighbourhood juvenile delinquents could well do better but there is always the feeling that this is the kind of well-spoken children's drama that the BBC did very well in the eighties and can still do, only not so often as they did then. Like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, there's an air of class about The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. It looks expensively staged, at least for a children's drama, and does more than a fair job of portraying Caspian's travels around Narnia in search of the seven lords. Mixing moments of drama with comedy, one doesn't mind seeing Eustace transformed into a dragon or the uni-footed Duffers when it's preceded by Burnt Island and the crew of the Dawn Treader in-fighting over a mysterious pool in which everything that falls within it turns to gold.
Mind you, neither are perfect. Prince Caspian, in spite of it still telling the story of the book, does feel much too short at a shade less than an hour. There's no time for any of the goings-on in the court of King Miraz while the contributions of the Pevensie children are kept to a minimum. However, it still has time for the awful ending to the book in which Susan is stopped from ever returning to Narnia on account of her growing older and, therefore, losing her innocence. Much that one can complain about as regards the dreadfully pious Christianity of the books is contained in that one scene alone. The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader fares better but lacks a sense of storytelling. Things happen but there's never an overriding feeling of them happening for a reason. They might as well be travelling to the end of the world after hearing it's a rather groovy place to be than for any other reason.
Walden Media will no doubt bring every nook and cranny of these stories to the screen when they are released this year and in 2010. They could well be impressive films but there will be, I suspect, fewer moments within them to enjoy. Here, the feast enjoyed by the crew of the Dawn Treader on the Island of the Duffers has a ramshackle charm but so too do many other moments in these six episodes. That, though, may appeal only to those who have fond memories of this from 1989 but there are probably more than enough of them to ensure this is a success.
The BBC's Children's Classics range was a terrific set of DVD releases. As well as The Chronicles Of Narnia, it also included The Secret Garden, Five Children And It, The Borrowers and The Box Of Delights, each one a classic and each one rightly given the treatment they deserved by the BBC. This, though the cover has changed and the imprint used on the disc is different, the actual transfer is exactly the same release as that issued in 2005 in The Chronicles Of Narnia boxset (and earlier as a standalone release). That's no bad thing as, though there's an obvious softness to the picture, it's a fair transfer of a show that was originally produced on video and was never quite as sharp as it would have been had it been filmed.
With the disc including six episodes of roughly twenty-five minutes each, the disc is full but not overly compressed and while there are certain scenes that impress, such as when Eustace runs off through the woods and away from the crew of the Dawn Treader or when the Pevensie children hide in the forest from Miraz's guards, the feeling one gets while watching Prince Caspian/The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is one of meeting purpose rather than impressing the viewer. The same goes for the DD2.0 audio track, which is fine for presenting the dialogue and action but offers few ambient effects. As a dual mono track, there is no separation between speakers but if understanding the action is all that one demands of it, then the disc is capable. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
The only bonus material on this disc is a Photo Gallery.