Out there in the many parallel universes there is certainly one that contains an interesting and worthwhile set of cinematic adaptations of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. Whatever magic wardrobe, charmed fire extinguisher, or enchanted pinball machine is required to get to those universes however, we do not seem to possess. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third entry in the fantasy-light series which this time trades the sprawling plains, snow-covered forests, and epic castles of mainland Narnia for action on the high seas. So essentially we exchange the toned-down medieval war fantasy for a swashbuckling adventure (there are definitely some scenes on land, but I assure you… you won’t remember most of them), but the change in genre doesn’t do much to reinvigorate the story. In fact, even with a constrained set of locations and a much more clearly defined goal, the script is extremely absent-minded about giving our characters any kind of interpersonal conflict or paying off any particular arcs. This is a real bummer, considering Dawn Treader is so streamlined, and is otherwise very competent as a easy-going adventure story for kids.
This particular story is ultra efficient in that it dispenses with all set up beyond a cursory glimpse of the younger Pevensie children’s living situation, which has them sharing space with their fussy cousin Eustace while separated from their older siblings Susan and Peter, who are off in America. We spend mere moments getting an idea of how tiring this arrangement is for them before a magical painting of the sea opens up and literally dumps Edmond, Lucy, and Eustace into the ocean in front of the Dawn Treader. Just that fast we’re on the boat with Lucy and Edmond reunited with Prince Caspian, dressed in Narnian garb, and sea-legged. If it weren’t for cousin Eustace and his shock at the sight of a minotaur and an enlarged rat trotting around and speaking, there would be nothing at all to indicate that anything is out of the ordinary. In fact, even Caspian and the children can’t figure out why they’ve been summoned as Narnia is enjoying an age of peace. It soon becomes clear though, that the errand that sends Caspian out to sea will be filled with enough danger to warrant the involvement of the royal Pevensies.
What follows is a fairly rote story involving an island town infected with slave-traders that constantly snatch people up to be sold into slavery (a problem that will never be addressed), or if you’re less lucky, sacrificed to the crawling green mist that approaches the island from time to time. Our heroes catch on quickly to the fact that Caspian’s quest to find 7 lost kings or whatever, is directly tied to the evil force threatening the island, and that they’ll have to find all of these guys’ magic swords. The succeeding search for the swords (which are found almost entirely by coincidence or happenstance) will take them across a few islands and closer to Aslan’s far-off country than most Narnians have ever been. Along the way, Eustace is turned into a dragon, Lucy is tempted by magic to enhance her beauty, and Edmond is made to feel inadequate because Caspian is captain of the boat. Rather than being woven in with the storyline, these internal conflicts are blatantly spelled out in silly on-the-nose scenes that just sort of happen whenever the script remembers to handle them. Nothing feels motivated by the story or task at hand, and none of the actors are capable of selling these character traits in scenes that aren’t directly spelling them out. The new character Eustace fares better (despite being a CGI dragon for half of the runtime) but that’s mostly due to how intensely annoying the character is in the first act, so any contrast in the 3rd seems like a monumental shift.
The fantasy elements also don’t have much to offer- the smaller touches, like the minotaur crew member for example, aren’t given much to do and even the climactic sea serpent battle is weightless. A mysterious wizard enters the picture to steer our heroes in a more plot-forwarding direction, but his magical Google Maps demonstration lacks much wonder or interest. There’s little awe to be found on this side of Narnia, even when the film is given over fully to spectacle. In an age where our phones are capable of doing much more magical and astounding things than the average fantasy wizard, you have to put extraordinary thought and detail into your magical realm to sell it as wondrous. The easily compared Potter films have gotten a lot of traction with this idea, and they rely not just on the gimmicky moments of spell-casting, but the total integration of magic into that universe to make it seem like an otherworldly place worth visiting. That same care is not taken here.
Dawn Treader isn’t without a few redeeming features though, particularly Simon Pegg’s vocal performance as Reepicheep the mouse. Pegg does fantastic work here- the performance is regal and mature, and sounds perfectly in line with the tone of Narnia. I would wager that Reepicheep is the best thing about the movie, so it’s a good thing he’s front and center. Even his arc feels the most well-earned, and his heavy involvement with Eustace does a lot to improve that character. Beyond the well-done mouse, there’s fun to be found with a fairly dynamic camera that takes a lot of joy in sweeping around the forms of the Dawn Treader. Even the 3D is pretty good- it might be the only post-conversion I’ve seen that wasn’t awful, and this may be the first fully live-action film that I wasn’t innately bothered by the 3D making everything choppy. Finally, director Michael Apted does a fine job of capturing the visual sweep of the seas of Narnia and the power of the titular vessel, but he doesn’t do much to save a clunky script, or coax an impacting performance out of our main characters.
There is ultimately a problem with adapting the Narnia books into films- unlike other fantasy stories that take place linearly within a universe, the Narnia stories are segmented and revolve around Narnia being a separate world from our own. There is something thematically interesting and, perhaps, mature about a series of literature that lets its primary cast of characters grow up and out of the story, passing the torch to younger characters. There’s a freedom and scope communicated by tales that drop into different eras of Narnia and treat the other stories as legend. This is an extremely difficult concept to translate to a blockbuster franchise, which just feels disconnected and without a sense of continuity for the the audience to grow with. There’s little weight to the proceedings, and while a franchise like Harry Potter (which this series has clearly been trying to emulate) has the luxury of a consistent cast and constantly accumulated imagery to buoy its lesser entries, the Narnia franchise doesn’t enjoy the same momentum. Characters are discarded well before we could possibly care about them, and the time that is given to them is so ineffectively used that there’s not much to be learned from them.
Considering the next story is devoid of any of the original children, and is followed by another two stories that take place in wildly different eras, I’m not sure what there is left for the film versions of the Chronicles of Narnia. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a harmless time at the movies for those seeking adventure, but there’s no magic left, and certainly not enough to take the franchise through the rest of the shifting Narnia timeline.