The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and some scary images
Running time: 113 min.
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Gary Sweet, Terry Norris, Bruce Spence, Laura Brent, Bille Brown, Simon Pegg (voice), Liam Neeson (voice)
Cameo: Tilda Swinton, Anna Popplewell, William Mosely
Director: Michael Apted
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni (based on the book by C.S. Lewis)
The third time isn't the charm for the Chronicles of Narnia series, with another entry and bland and cheesy as the first two efforts. Even taking the film as one meant for children, it just doesn't hold up. Without compelling characters, narrative depth, or direction that inspires suspense or awe, there's nothing left here but placeholder plot developments and as many special effects as the budget can muster. It's more of a variation on the same theme, whereby ordinary children pass through a portal into a fantasy dimension in which they are kings and queens in the realm, all the while the subtext of C.S. Lewis' theology provides a life lesson or two about being true to oneself, resisting the temptation of evil, and the power of faith. All of which would be well and good if not that it is ensconced in as tidy and flavorless package that provides little in terms of bits of interest and even less moments of genuine surprise.
This entry almost wholly features the two youngest Pevensie children, Lucy (Henley, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Edmund (Keynes, Prince Caspian), who travel back to the magical realm of Narnia, where they are royalty, along with their disbelieving and frequent source of irritation, cousin Eustace Scrubb (Poulter, Son of Rambow), in order to gather up seven swords of legend in an attempt to save the outer rim lands from the wicked spell they are under from the dark islands. Heading the ship-borne expedition is their friend Prince Caspian (Barnes, Stardust) and his mighty crew, along with their rodent friend, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, Star Trek).
If you've read my reviews for the previous two films, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, you can probably take an educated guess that I'm unlikely to think that another chapter that continues the hokum heroics and ersatz moments of valor might actually be an entertaining adventure for all. Alas, unlike the Harry Potter series, which eventually won me over through increasingly complex developments, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is stuck in entertaining audiences who may have seen few films in their lifetimes.
In a way, it's refreshing for a series of adventures to cater mostly to the upholding of children as important members of society -- as important and worthy of respect as their adult counterparts. However, the way that this aspect comes across in the film series seems to suggest a form of servitude that the human and animal creatures are under to their visitors, as if the land merely exists to infuse the tykes with feelings of self-importance and accomplishment that they almost never get in the real world. And to believe in things they can't prove exist. Eustace exemplifies the nonbeliever, and he's the most annoying character one might imagine, with his caricature of a voice (sounding like a Hollywood movie beat reporter of the 1930s), and his inability to be anything but a detestable party pooper. There's redemption for the lad, but only if he's willing to accept that he's wrong about the land of magic and all that he sees (and doesn't see).
Like the movies before it, the momentum finds its footing once in a while, particularly as it draws closer to the conclusion, but without any true feeling or empathy with the characters, many of the events that should be gripping lay lifeless. All we can do in the audience is occasionally admire the special effects (though Fox doesn't do the visuals as well as Disney, who gave up the rights to the franchise after two films) or the rousing score, and wonder why so much effort had gone to trying to inspire emotion and majesty without building up either. But, at least the scale is smaller, less of a forced epic, not building up for a grand battle between forces we barely know or care about. It's disjointed -- episodic, mostly -- but in the end, it's about the children, where it always should have been. If only we ever got to know them as more than conduits to adventure, we might even shed a tear. Maybe.
At this point, it's uncertain if there's any redemption for the series, with four "Narnia" books left to adapt. Can the makers take a new direction and risk losing the audience sticking with it through its insipid narrative techniques and un-challenging, watered-down allegorical themes to make a truly good film that will engaged seasoned audiences? I'd wager not, as the ship may have already sailed for the franchise, and of the kinds of movies built to ride The Lord of the Rings' popular coat tails.
©2011 Vince Leo