Three movies in and they’re running out of gas.
The Voyage of The Dawn Treader ranks as the best of C.S. Lewis’s seven Narnia books, though it also remains one of the toughest to film. It uses episodic narration, as the titular vessel visits a new island every chapter on a journey to… well, the specifics were always a little hazy in that department. Lewis’s prose made each island a wonder, but in our CGI-saturated multiplexes, such wonders must struggle even harder to achieve the proper sense of awe. The film’s inability to show us every stop on the journey (those time constraints are a bitch), or to fashion a proper climax out of a text which really has none cause further damage. Though never bad, it does feel awfully tired at times, as fantasy fatigue slowly catches up to it.
Lewis, for his part, understood the need to keep things fresh. Dawn Treader thus banishes half of the Pevensie children off-screen, leaving only young Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and younger Lucy (Georgie Henley) to carry on. Their horrid cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) steps in to fill the gap, and thanks to a strong performance from the young actor, he becomes the best thing about the film. A magic painting sucks the three of them into the Narnian ocean, where their old friend King Caspian (Ben Barnes) fishes them out. He’s on a voyage to find seven missing Narnian lords, as well as exploring the unknown seas to the east of the kingdom. He’s joined by Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), the swashbuckling mouse who’s following some kind of destiny, and who constitutes the other half of the film’s foundation. He and Eustace go from nasty rivals to reluctant friends, and the dramatic arc of that progression makes for Dawn Treader’s most engaging character elements.
Would that the rest of it could match that dynamic. Instead, it busies itself with various challenges on various islands—each one based loosely on one of the Seven Deadly Sins—while the crew receives the odd helping hand from Aslan the Not-At-All-Christlike Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson). It sticks to Lewis’s prose reasonably accurately, save towards the end when director Michael Apted crams a number of encounters into a would-be finale. His work feels competent, much like his entry in the James Bond franchise. He doesn’t screw anything up and fans of the book shouldn’t be unreasonably put out by the necessary changes of transplanting mediums. Keynes and Henley both know their parts quite well, and remain pleasant (if not always compelling) on-screen figures.
But at the same time, Dawn Treader loses the crispness of Lewis’s prose. The details so lovingly captured by the author remain mere afterthoughts here, conjured in an instant by computer-generated effects of which we’ve seen far too much of. An island of gnomes who hop about on one giant foot feels more staged than whimsical here, and the overall story contains too many heavy lessons of the “believe in yourself” variety. The nebulous nature of the quest fails to hook us properly as well, and while the script attempts to provide a tangible antagonist to fight, said antagonist proves to be (literally) nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
We’re left, then, with Reepicheep: easily one of Narnia’s most beloved characters who has a chance to strut his stuff here. Pegg nails the character’s fanciful side in a way that Eddie Izzard never did in Prince Caspian and of all of Dawn Treader’s figures, he comes the closest to evoking the swashbuckling spirit to which it aspires. Unfortunately, the rest of the film can’t follow suit: too bland, too shopworn and too uninspired to do more than fill in the blanks. Hopefully, Reepicheep’s partner Eustace can give things a boost in the fourth entry… assuming the series survives long enough to reach it.