(by Dustin Putman
A successful start to a new fantasy franchise, 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" vividly blended imagination, foreboding and heart into a formidably lush package. Since then, it has been a gradual downward spiral. Whether due to the source material by C.S. Lewis not lending itself as easily to the feature-length cinematic form or because of a deficiency in the writing and delivery, 2008's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and now "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" have not been able to live up to their predecessor, what was once magical now coming off as blander and less inspired. With a switch in studio—Walt Disney Pictures dropped the films when "Prince Caspian" did not live up to the original's box-office—and a lot riding on "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" to recoup its budget and then some, new distributor 20th Century Fox is surely hoping for a reason to continue the series from here (there are seven books in total to adapt). The jury is still out on the financial side of things, but quality-wise, this third trip to Narnia is the opposite of a charm. Article continues below
With World War II drawing to a close and elder siblings Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) assisting their mother back in London, now-teenaged brother and sister Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) are stuck in Cambridge living with their aunt, uncle, and insufferably snooty younger cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). When the water from a painted seascape comes to life, it drags Edmund and Lucy—with a disbelieving Eustace in tow—back to the mystical land of Narnia. Pulled aboard the majestic Dawn Treader ship and reunited with now King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and swashbuckling rodent Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), Edmund and Lucy are soon embroiled in a mission to find seven swords representing the seven ancient lords of Narnia as a means of stopping a great evil lurking about in the form of a green mist, sacrificing and snatching up anyone who comes in its path. Islands are visited, slave trades are overthrown, dragons and sea creatures are battled, and lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) shows up, as blatantly God-like as ever.
Directed by Michael Apted (2002's "Enough"), taking over for previous frontsman Andrew Adamson, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a little tame, close to cheerless, and hindered by a plot that gives its characters little room to grow as they monotonously sail around the open seas for the better part of two hours. Reprising their roles yet again as Edmund and Lucy, Skandar Keynes and especially Georgie Henley are charming, earnest young performers, but neither of them have much to do that brings out their personalities or further explores their relationship. Like the overblown enterprise surrounding them, they are stuck in rote positions, going through the motions of a screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni that is less interested in human interaction and emotions than it is in empty special effects razzle-dazzle. The visuals, by the way, alternate between pretty and garish before simply becoming repetitive. Meanwhile, the malevolent mist threatening the Narnians proves to be a decidedly weak bad guy while too closely for comfort resembling the so-called smoke monster from TV's "Lost."
Taking itself with a deadly seriousness that slows the story to a lackadaisical crawl, the film's narrative progression becomes such an afterthought that, when it is mentioned that six of the seven swords have been found, one might actually be left struggling to remember where and when the weapons were nabbed. As King Caspian, Ben Barnes (2007's "Stardust") continues to showcase the same vapid lack of charisma that Orlando Bloom has; they're generically handsome and that's all they have going for them from an acting perspective. One element that does prove memorable, however, is Will Poulter's (2008's "Son of Rambow") entertainingly snarky turn as sniveling know-it-all Eustace Scrubb. Poulter's slow but sure turnaround into a warm, more understanding protagonist by the end is conveyed well, but with one asterisk: Eustace transforms into a dragon for most of the second half, and Poulter's absence is certainly felt.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a disappointingly dreary return to a place that no longer holds any of the mystery, atmosphere, or whimsy of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The final ten minutes are, indeed, the best part, provocatively bold and surprisingly touching even as its attempts at religious allegory are about as subtle as an exclamation point on top of a falling boulder. When Lucy asks the noble Aslan if she'll ever see him again and he responds in the affirmative, saying, "I go by a different name in your world," only the daftest of audience members will be able to overlook the blatant symbolism of his words. There is still much potential in these big-screen forays into Narnia; let's just hope if the series does move beyond a trilogy, the later installments don't forget that heart will always outpace flashiness when it comes to motion pictures that endure through the ages.Note:
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it must be said that the post-converted 3-D version of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" being released in theaters should be avoided at all costs (and the costs are steep, what with the inflated prices of 3-D tickets). Akin to sitting in the dark wearing sunglasses for 115 minutes, the film's 3-D lacks dimensionality and perspective while draining the picture of its bright exuberance. So virtually nonexistent is the 3-D that you can take the glasses off and watch the movie for long spans of time without noticing a difference—a surefire sign that the format as used here is utterly worthless. If you must go see the picture, don't be suckered into this subpar 3-D presentation; seek out the nearest theater showing it in two dimensions.