Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (United States, 2010)

December 07, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Poster

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is fantasy-lite. With its PG rating and aversion to anything shocking or overly grotesque, it's the bastard stepchild of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. A dull, meandering storyline and visuals all-but destroyed by a second-rate 3-D conversion make this movie inferior to its predecessors, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. The "quest" element, a common fantasy staple, is uninspired and perfunctory, and there's a growing sense throughout the movie that there's no real point to any of what is occurring. This isn't much a problem in C.S. Lewis' source novel, an allegorical children's fable about faith and the fantastical, but it does not translate well to a motion picture.

In 2005, following the success of The Lord of the Rings and the early Harry Potter films, Disney decided they wanted their own fantasy franchise. Instead of choosing something newer and edgier, they went with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, a lightweight in the genre, but one that could deliver two key demographics: younger children and church-going Christians. The latter group was specifically targeted because of Lewis' religious reputation and his admission that his beloved books were Christian allegories. However, after the success of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, enthusiasm dried up for Prince Caspian. Disney, disappointed by the box office returns of the second installment and concerned that the lack of a narrative drive in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader could make it unpopular, bailed on the series. 20th Century Fox replaced Disney as Walden Media's partner in the venture, but this could be a one-film deal. Unless The Voyage of the Dawn Treader does better in multiplexes than is currently predicted, Narnia's live-action feature films will stall at three. (The series contains seven books, although two are outside the main chronology.) The Last Battle will probably never reach the screen, which is disappointing, since it would have been interesting to see how the filmmakers might have handled an apocalyptic story that is essentially unfilmable.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins, as the previous installments did, in our world, with England enmeshed in World War II. The two younger Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), have gone to live with their cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). It's at the Scrubb house, while gazing at a painting of a ship, that the three children are magically transported to Narnia. For Lucy and Edmund, this is their third visit. For the skeptical and self-centered Eustace, it's his inaugural journey to the fantasy world so beloved by his relatives. Caspian (Ben Barnes), once prince and now king, is on hand to pull the three children from the sea. They find themselves voyaging on The Dawn Treader, the pride of Narnia's fleet. The king is on a mission to discover the whereabouts of seven lords and seven swords that have gone missing. The ship has set off to explore the Eastern Seas beyond the Lone Islands and possibly even discover Aslan's Country.

In an attempt to bring some structure to the narrative, the movie occasionally departs in significant ways from the book. In fact, arguably the most energetic element of the movie - a lengthy battle with a gigantic sea serpent - has been contrived for the screen. Still, even with the quest sharpened (the seven swords, when gathered and placed on Aslan's Table, can shift the balance from evil to good and free the prisoners of The Dark Island), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader meanders. The trek demands nearly two hours, but it's hard to argue that the destination is worth the time investment.

Character development is perfunctory. There's an irony here; director Michael Apted is best known for his Up Series of movies, cinematic records of the lives of a group of British men and women over 42 years (and counting). As such, Apted is the author of arguably the greatest documentary character study ever committed to film. One would expect more vivid - or at least interesting - personalities to emerge even from a fictional endeavor. However, despite this being the third time viewers have traveled alongside Lucy and Edmund, they fail to stand out as memorable or remarkable. A similar complaint can be made about Caspian, although this is only his second movie. Eustace is a generic brat. The two most compelling individuals are brought to life by special effects: the swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (whose voice is provided by Simon Pegg) and Eustace the Dragon. Once the boy has become a monster, he carries the tragedy of his circumstances like a mantle, and it's touching to see the dragon's tears.

More than in either of the previous movies, Lewis' Christian philosophy is evident. The main theme is about faith, and Aslan's role as a Christ figure is brought out of the subtext when the Lion acknowledges that he exists in the real world, but is called by another name. Lucy and Edmund, he advises, should come to know him there in his other guise. Excepting The Last Battle, it's possible to read the books and not think of the theology as being heavy-handed. Yet that's precisely how it feels in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The production's special effects are generally strong, and some shots have the potential to be quite beautiful. The dragon, for example, is impressive, as is the giant sea serpent that harries the ship during the climax. Unfortunately, the 3-D is so bad that it muddies a lot of what's on screen. Having experienced the first ten minutes in both 2-D and 3-D, I can comment with authority that the 2-D version is superior in every way: sharper, brighter, and more colorful. The 3-D adds little except a surcharge while detracting from the experience as a whole. It's not quite as bad as Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, but it's close.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader features some odd shifts in tone. A sequence involving a group of invisible creatures feels like it was lifted from an unproduced Monty Python movie. Eustace's character arc contains elements of pathos. And there's sadness at the end when the finality of certain farewells is made clear. Throughout the movie, many common fantasy elements are present, including a dungeon and a dragon, but the essential simplicity and lack of ambition make The Voyage of the Dawn Treader an unremarkable and somewhat boring trip.

Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2010-12-10
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1