The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Skander Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was always my favorite book of the series, so it stands to reason I was more optimistic about this film than the ones that came before it. To be clear, I'm a fan of both previous movies - Prince Caspian more so than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Director Andrew Adamson is replaced by former James Bond director Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), and Apted doesn't skip a beat making this feel right at home in the Narnia series. The tone, visual style, and effects are a perfect fit with the rest of the movies, and though the story is incredibly derivative from every fantasy story ever told, I still think this is my favorite among the three movies.
This story follows the younger Pevensie siblings Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) while they're stationed in England during WWII. Their older brother and sister have been shipped off to America, but the former King and Queen of Narnia must stay behind, living with their insufferable cousin Eustace (Poulter) until they can travel stateside safely. When all three of them are suddenly consumed by the waves of a strange painting hanging in their home, they surface in Narnia, where King Caspian (Barnes) is leading a ship called The Dawn Treader to find seven lost lords as an all-consuming darkness sweeps the land.
Apted does a fantastic job of translating this story to the big screen, and the addition of 3D fits pretty well in this world. Excusing some focus issues and slight blurriness at times, the 3D was well-executed and didn't distract from the story or feel like a cash grab. The visual effects were surprisingly impressive, from the opening painting scene featured in the trailers to the sweeping vistas of the magical land in which the story takes place. Make no mistake, this is no How To Train Your Dragon - but it's solid 3D in a movie climate that seems content with dumping crappy 3D on patrons and expecting congratulations for doing so. More impressive even than the visual effects was the way Apted framed the action, avoiding shaky camera work in favor of geographical awareness (a decision which almost always features the best possible outcome). An escape sequence on a seemingly deserted island was especially well choreographed.
Because the film centers around the youngest siblings, it features a great deal of "growing pain" scenes, in which Edmund and Lucy must overcome adversity and mature into adults, mirroring the same scheme used with Peter and Susan in Prince Caspian. For the most part, these moments are well-handled, though the premise of a darkness sweeping the land that tempts people is a bit heavy-handed. Speaking of this evil-incarnate, it serves multiple purposes in the film, from consuming human sacrifices to - in a move straight out of Ghostbusters - taking on the form of whatever fears it. It also appears as a green version of the Smoke Monster from LOST, which was almost as laughable as the concept of the smoke itself. Aside from that aspect being a little too on the nose, I didn't have many problems with the rest of the movie.
Will Poulter has an interesting arc as the annoying cousin, Eustace Scrubb. He spends the first half of the film begging the audience to murder him with their minds thanks to his brash personality and haughty sense of higher intelligence. But as the movie progresses and he undergoes a bit of a transformation (I won't ruin it in case you check it out), he actually becomes not only tolerable, but actually empathetic. His relationship with the brave mouse Reepicheep becomes a focal point of the movie and is one of the more entertaining elements on display.
Ben Barnes continues to stand out as Caspian, and I honestly believe he has that movie-star quality about him that could easily earn him some choice roles in the coming years. I expect great things from him, and expect this guy to quickly become a rising star in Hollywood. The other actors bring their same acting styles from the earlier films across here, which is to say that they are adequate but not breathtaking. Voice work from Liam Neeson and Simon Pegg was as good as you'd expect from actors of their stature, although Neeson's role is much more brief than previous installments in this franchise.
I haven't read the book on which this is based in probably 15 years, so I can't speak to the accuracy in that regard, but the film version basically presents us with an alternate telling of Homer's The Odyssey. By sea, the crew travels to various lands in search of these lost lords and is tested at every turn, from magic spells to cursed food and everything in between in a morality tale about having faith and overcoming temptation. Since The Odyssey is one of my favorite stories, that explains my enjoyment of this movie. The same themes are present to a degree; actions have consequences in Narnia, a lesson learned for when the characters return to the real world.
Issues of faith are tackled head on, with the film embracing its Christian undertones - let's face it, overtones - and though this movie borders on sanctimonious at times, I didn't think it ever crossed the line into being overly preachy. This series has proudly flown its flag from the beginning, so you know what you're getting yourself into here: if you can't handle a little positivity in your movies, stay home for this one.
The film plays an interesting game in its final minutes, effectively wrapping up the Pevensie storyline but leaving an opening for another sequel just in case this one makes bank at the box office. If I were to guess, I'd say this is the last we see of Narnia until the inevitable reboot in 10 years, and I'm OK with that. If you have kids, or you're a sucker for adventure tales, I'm sure you'll find something to enjoy with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Until next time...