Running Time:115 min. Rating: PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.
Directed by: Michael Apted. Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen Freely
Starring: Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg, Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson
The recent adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia occupy a curious limbo in the world of fantasy filmmaking. When the series debuted with Andrew Adamson’s take on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it played like training wheels for more fearsome genre entries like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films.
Following the more mature Prince Caspian, comes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which trades up director Adamson for Michael Apted and parent studio Disney for 20th Century Fox. Outside of those cosmetic changes and some slapped-on 3D, this Narnia retains all of the same traits and flaws as its predecessors. Despite some tantalizing moments and a welcome patience in the direction, Treader can’t throw off the reigns of milquetoast fantasy. One of the biggest hindrances is that it lacks the verve, wit and warmth that Lewis built into his novels.
The new film jettisons the older Pevensie children, Peter and Susan, but transports Lucy and Edmund and their aggravating cousin Eustace back to the world of Narnia via a waterlogged painting. They wash up next to the sailing vessel The Dawn Treader, captained by their friend Prince Caspian and crewed by a conscript army of humans and creatures. Caspian and his soldiers are looking for the Seven Missing Lords of Telmar (S.M.L.O.T.) and their fabled swords. The reason for this is a menacing green mist has started tearing it’s way across the landscape of Narnia, stealing away the inhabitants. As legend has it (and the legends always have it) when the seven swords are placed at Aslan’s table the dark evil will be vanquished. Of course, the good lion couldn’t just keep his table somewhere handy within Narnian boundaries where it could readily vanquish evil. Instead, it sits at the outskirts of the kingdom, near the unknown lands referred to as Aslan’s Country.
The bulk of the film then is an quest to travel to the islands concealing the lost swords and assemble them around the stone table, residing on it’s own island. Edmund and Lucy, tired of being marginalized in England, are more than happy to be back in Narnia and must once again overcome their pride and uncertainty to rescue a people in peril. For Eustace Scrubb, their cousin, this entire journey threatens to undo his future career as an unbearable nebbish; what he learns in Narnia amounts to a transformative experience. He starts out scowling and boasting, and ends up as a reluctant, cowering dragon who must rise to the occasion to save his friends and family. Caspian, the lesson-learner on the last go-round, has much less to do here but he lends the series a male heartthrob it wouldn’t have otherwise.
With Lewis’ novel, there was more a sense of free-wheeling escapism and spirited peril than a cohesive narrative. The passages of the book create the feel of a long journey on a great big boat with plenty of welcome shipmates. The side adventures on the islands expand the delight and give the feeling of forward momentum and purpose. In cinematic form, this is harder to accomplish. The individual vignettes, like an island of invisible critters and an exciting battle against slave traders, work for colorful thrills but they feel disconnected and the distinct lack of character definition, especially regarding the returning Pevensies, causes the film to drag.
The acting is, on the whole, serviceable but Apted and company make everything too somber. Even Caspian, cleared of his soul searching, becomes a bland swashbuckler fit for an 80’s muppet-fest. Thankfully Simon Pegg as the heroic and noble mouse knight Reepicheep and Will Poulter as the scowling Eustace provide enough energy to carry us between set pieces. My favorite moments involve Eustace’s dragon shedding tears of regret and later learning there’s an upside to breathing fire and being covered in scaled plating.
From a visual and aesthetic stand-point, fans of the films aren’t likely to notice a major departure in quality. As helmer, Apted spends less time with the fabulist tableau of talking animals and mythic creatures and instead hones in on the quest narrative and logistics of Narnian geography. His representation of the titular ship as a folksy Viking schooner loaded down with a colorful cast of familiar heroes is one of the film’s strongest elements. From that elegant dragon masthead that adorns the prow to the various minotaurs, brigands and wayward Earthlings wandering the deck, the Dawn Treader becomes a microcosm of Narnia and a breeding ground for Lewis’ spiritual themes.
Add in sequences like Reepicheep’s poignant exodus (visually recalling the biblical one) and a battle with a spectacular, slithering sea-serpent and you have enough visual ingenuity to ensure that children and families will enjoy this as a wholesome matinee adventure. Where Apted and the rest of the team get tied up is making the characters distinguished or interesting and keeping the haphazard nature of the plot from interfering with the escapism. It’s in the convoluted storytelling and over-reliance on Lewis’ allegorical symbolism that Treader loses its way.
On the printed page, there was enough fairy tale sensitivity to Narnia to make much of the allegory and moral sermonizing work. As concepts, they still retain power, but the film wants to be a literal action adventure with an emphasis on the shields, the armor, and the fighting and in the midst of this there becomes less room for God-like lions and meditations on death and the path beyond. We are deprived real villains like Jadis the witch or the Telmarines in favor of a nebulous, shapeless evil that follows in the vague footsteps of that big bad planet from The Fifth Element.
In every way the script feels like a pastiche of better works, and not even the regal but distant Aslan (complete with Neeson’s voice) can bring anything to the table. It won’t be a ride you will regret, and the turbulence is minimal, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself lulled into sleep by the languid rhythms of Dawn Treader.