Valiantly attempting to relaunch Walden Media’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” Fox has hitched itself to one leaky vessel with “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Taking a faith-based sledgehammer to C.S. Lewis’ enchanting source novel, this f/x-heavy third adaptation of the Christian-themed fantasy series feels routine and risk-averse in every respect, as if investment anxiety had fatally hobbled its sense of wonder. Public goodwill toward the “Narnia” name, 3D ticket premiums and a well-timed December release could spell friendly B.O. winds initially, but this creatively downsized entry doesn’t feel like a franchise high-water mark commercially or artistically.
When Disney pulled out after 2008’s “Prince Caspian” (which earned $415 million worldwide but fell short of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s” staggering $745 million haul), it fell to Fox to keep “Narnia” afloat through its marketing/distribution pact with Walden. Industry eyes will be on “Dawn Treader” through the holidays and beyond, and its performance will surely be a crucial determining factor in the direction of the four remaining films. Next up, presumably, is “The Silver Chair” (the seeds of which are planted here in a throwaway line).
Rightly beloved by generations of readers young and old, faithful and secular, Lewis’ seven-volume cycle was always a tricky bigscreen proposition. None of “Wardrobe’s” six sequels can match it for name recognition and classic appeal, and because the stories are all self-contained, written out of chronological sequence and centered around a shifting gallery of protagonists, the series overall lacks the sustaining narrative urgency and continuity of such gold-standard movie franchises as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”
A particular reader favorite, “Dawn Treader” itself posed unique challenges to adaptation: A long seafaring adventure with a vague narrative thrust and no major villain, the story is gentle in spirit, episodic in structure and richly invested in character-driven themes of wisdom and maturity prevailing over temptation and pride. The film’s principal flaw is that it views this as a condition to be remedied, rather than a quality to be embraced. Scribes Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and “Narnia” newbie Michael Petroni have attempted to up the stakes by tacking on a dull “Rings”-like fantasy quest, as well as a climactic sea-monster battle that smacks of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Against the backdrop of mid-WWII England, the two youngest Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), are sent to stay with relatives, namely their loathsome cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). An insolent brat without a speck of imagination, Eustace gets a much-needed attitude adjustment when he, Lucy and Edmund are magically swept into a painting and deposited in the middle of the ocean, where they are rescued by the golden ship of the film’s title.
While Eustace splutters indignantly and makes an immediate enemy of dashing mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), Lucy and Edmund are thrilled to be reunited aboard the Dawn Treader with their friend Caspian (Ben Barnes), now king of Narnia. Caspian and his crew of men and talking beasts have set sail for the distant Lone Islands in search of the swords of seven presumed-dead Narnian lords — their only chance of vanquishing a nameless evil that manifests itself as billowing green smoke, an unfortunate effect that suggests an excess of beans in the cargo hold.
Far more emphatically than in the novel, Lucy, Edmund and especially Eustace must endure tough tests of character, aided by occasional benevolent interventions from the great lion Aslan (once again speaking in the regal purr of Liam Neeson). Rather than weaving these moral quandaries into an adventure that’s compelling on its own terms, the script foregrounds them like Sunday school illustrations in which the word “faith” is frequently invoked but never once examined.
Inspiring retroactive appreciation for Andrew Adamson’s earnest but entirely respectable helming on the first two films, Michael Apted’s workmanlike direction suggests a singular lack of interest in the mythic world he’s showing us. The oceanic backdrop and island visitations offered an opportunity to broaden Narnia’s visual horizons (pic was lensed in Queensland, Australia), but “Dawn Treader” looks hastily executed, relying on excessive over-the-mast shots to convey a sweeping sense of grandeur.
Result is a picture that, in its gaudy vfx, substandard 3D and homily-like sense of drama, feels straitjacketed by its mandate to deliver a Christian-targeted, mainstream-friendly entertainment (all on a budget and production schedule reportedly far tighter than “Prince Caspian’s”).
Doing their part to maintain audience connection to the core characters are Henley and Keynes, both good at conveying the sly sense of mischief that keeps Lucy and Edmund recognizably human, while Poulter (“Son of Rambow”) makes a delightfully impudent Eustace, who undergoes the story’s most profound transformation, literally and figuratively. Crucial to the success of this emotional passage is Pegg’s droll, affectionate voicework as Reepicheep (taking over for Eddie Izzard), at once utterly rodentlike and richly human, emerging as one of the few aspects of this “Voyage” that feels true to Lewis’ conception.