Film Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The magic is over, folks. The third and likely final entry in the 'Narnia' franchise is a listless, plodding bore.
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After the enormous success of the first Chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in 2005, visions of a new seven-part film series danced in the heads of the suits at Disney (which produced the movie) and Walden Media (which owns the film rights to the beloved fantasy novels penned by author/theologian C.S. Lewis). But then the sequel, 2008’s Prince Caspian, underperformed at the box office and the Mouse House jumped ship, forcing Walden to go hunting for another studio willing to finance the remaining five chronicles. 20th Century Fox rode to their rescue, putting up the funds to make The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the film that will either kick-start the fading franchise or hasten its demise. Actually, should this turn out to be Narnia’s last stand (in this incarnation, anyway), the film does function as a logical conclusion to the series. After all, Dawn Treader is the last chronicle to star the Pevensies, the four siblings who found their way into Narnia through that musty old wardrobe five years ago.

In the interests of complete accuracy, it should be noted that only half of the Pevensie clan returns for this chapter, as elder kids Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) were booted out of Narnia at the end of Prince Caspian for being over the hill. (Both actors do make cameo appearances, though.) That leaves dour Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and plucky Lucy (Georgie Henley), who literally fall through a painting into the fantasy realm and wind up aboard the titular longship captained by their old pal King—née Prince—Caspian (the spectacularly bland Ben Barnes). Also along for the ride is their irritating cousin Eustace Scrubb (Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter, playing the part of an obnoxious prat a little too effectively), who spends the first half of the movie complaining about his predicament until he realizes that Narnia is a pretty neat place to be, all things considered. (Eustace would be the star of the next installment, The Silver Chair, were Fox to proceed with the franchise, which is another argument in favor of ending it now.)

After sailing around for some time vainly in search of a compelling narrative, the crew of the Dawn Treader is tasked with a quest that requires them to make the arduous voyage to Aslan’s Country, the lair of the all-powerful lion (once again voiced by Liam Neeson) who lords over Narnia. Getting there means passing through several different ports where they encounter a menagerie of fantasy creatures, including dragons, sea serpents and little garden gnome-like pests that hop around on one foot.

Several of the characters must wrestle with inner struggles as well; the now-tweenage Lucy, for example, longs to be a beauty like Susan, while Edmund desperately wants to command the same respect enjoyed by Peter and Caspian. As for the newly crowned King, he’s plagued by the nagging fear that he’s not living up to his deceased father’s legacy. In fact, as he nears the border of Aslan’s Country, he begins to wonder whether he shouldn’t continue to sail on, leaving Narnia behind and entering the world that lies beyond, where his dad may await him. (In case you haven’t figured it out on your own, the movie goes out of its way to ensure that everyone in the audience understands that Aslan’s Country represents Heaven. Where the first two films played down the religious aspects of Lewis’ novels, this one leaves little room for doubt.)

While they all share the same source material and set of characters, each film in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise possesses its own distinct tone and style. Wardrobe is a classic children’s storybook fantasy populated by evil witches and magical objects, while Prince Caspian more closely resembles a war movie (albeit a bloodless one), with a small, ragtag army riding into battle against a seemingly unbeatable enemy. With its high-seas setting and swashbuckling hero, Dawn Treader seems to be modeling itself after a Sinbad adventure; certainly, the climactic encounter with the aforementioned giant aquatic snake inspires memories of those Ray Harryhausen-designed action sequences from the Sinbad pictures of yesteryear, with CGI taking the place of stop-motion animation, of course.

If only the film had been directed by someone with as much imagination as Harryhausen! Unfortunately, the man behind the camera is Michael Apted, the veteran British filmmaker who excels at documentaries and character studies but has never shown an aptitude for the demands of blockbuster filmmaking. (Prior to Dawn Treader, he was responsible for the worst contemporary James Bond outing, 1999’s The World is Not Enough.) Apted directs the film with a workmanlike professionalism that keeps the cast and crew hitting their marks, but fails to lend the proceedings any sense of wonder or excitement. It doesn’t help that the franchise took a significant pay cut when it jumped from Disney to Fox, and the reduced budget is obvious in the underpopulated set-pieces and the generic costume and set design. Oftentimes, Apted’s version of Narnia more closely resembles a Renaissance fair than a living, breathing fantasy world.

It ain’t over until the Christ-like lion roars, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader feels like the last gasp of a franchise rather than a creative rebirth.