The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
By Andrew Welch
December 10, 2010
Andrew Adamson had never made a live-action film before he stepped behind the camera to make the first two films in The Chronicles of Narnia, and it showed. The acting was mediocre, the visuals were colorful but flat, and Narnia felt about as big as Central Park. For the third installment in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there's a new director—Michael Apted, who has a significant number of movies under his belt. But the reasonable expectation that a more experienced artist might be able to redeem a so-so franchise proves unfounded. Almost nothing about this picture is an improvement, except for a sense that Lewis' fantastical land might actually take more than a few days to explore. Otherwise, it's just more of the same.
The movie's flaws aren't just isolated to the acting or the visuals, though. Like its predecessors, it exhibits a mild impatience with its own source material. On the surface, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader prides itself on bringing Lewis' magical story and insightful theology to life for the world to admire. I can't get past the feeling, though, that what we're really watching is a child who desperately wants to steal attention away from his older, more impressive cousin, The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia stories are children’s literature. They are short, packed with meaning and derive much of their beauty from their simplicity. Yet the filmmakers behind the series seem intent on trying to steal Peter Jackson's thunder by adding in more action than necessary and borrowing from other sources to “improve” certain plot points.
Just take a moment to consider the plot of Lewis' book. Lucy and Edmund, the youngest of the Pevensie siblings, have been sent to live out the rest of World War II with their bratty cousin, Eustace Scrubb. They're understandably miserable. Then, in a moment that defies all logic, the children are pulled inside a painting of a ship at sea and find that they've landed smack-dab in the middle of Narnia. There, they find that Caspian, who was upgraded from a prince to a king in their last adventure, is looking for seven lords who went missing back when his evil uncle stole the throne. The heroes travel from island to island, encountering danger, excitement and the missing lords as they go. Eventually they disembark on a distant land where they discover three of the men they're looking for locked in a deep sleep. The only way to break the spell is for the heroes to travel to the end of the world and leave one of their party behind.
The filmmakers get much of this right, but the rest is hopelessly muddled. Instead of just looking for the seven lords, Caspian is tasked with finding their swords, which—for some reason—have magical powers when brought together in one place. On top of that, the heroes have promised to discover the mystery behind an eerie green fog that causes people to disappear. And did I mention they also have to destroy a black, wispy island inhabited by a sea serpent?
I don't know whether we have screenwriter Christopher Markus to thank for these changes or Douglas Gresham, the movie’s producer and Lewis’ stepson, but it's all too much. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say the Narnia series is acting too grown-up for its own good. Instead of embracing the simple plot of the book they're adapting, they try to make the story feel more complex. But the changes they've made for this big screen production only contribute to its confused sense of itself. The movie doesn’t know what it wants to be or where it wants to go, so it goes nowhere, and it goes there with as much bluster as it can.
There are two notable aspects of the movie that do deserve praise though. One is the addition of Simon Pegg to the cast. He replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep, the swashbuckling mouse. His passion for life and unshakable faith in Aslan perfectly capture the light-hearted yet absolutely serious spirit of Lewis' work, and Pegg makes us feel this using just his voice. Actors Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Ben Barnes—as Lucy, Edmund and Caspian, respectively—feel stilted by comparison. Will Poulter is good as Eustace, but it's hard to get over his voice, which makes him sound like James Cagney on helium.
The second thing I admire is that the film includes Aslan's admonition to Lucy to look for him in her own world. “But there I have another name,” he tells her. “You must learn to know me by that name.” If the rest of the movie seems to drown out Lewis with its noise, here he's allowed to shine as brightly as the sun gleaming off the ocean waves. This is pure Lewis, without the extra bells and whistles, and the lines, as voiced by Liam Neeson, have enormous power. If only the rest of the movie came as close to hitting the mark.
Andrew Welch writes about movies for RELEVANT and lives in Texas.