It’s very difficult for me to write this review. I’ve been a massive Narnia fan for more than a decade…I grew up on C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy series, and eagerly followed the development of Walden Media’s big-budget film adaptations. I saw “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and “Prince Caspian” twice each in theaters, and was excited when I learned that “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” was in the works. Considering the effective “Lord of the Rings-lite” tone of the first two, I naturally assumed “Dawn Treader” would be just as good. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, quite a lot.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is an effects-heavy, severely truncated version of C.S. Lewis’ classic. While it looks splendid, in its quest to be the “next big thing” it tragically loses the magic that made the first two so strong. It isn’t a “bad” movie, but it’s a sad reflection of what it could have been.
For anyone who’s not familiar with the books, the plot follows the two younger Pevensie children (Edmund and Lucy) and their obnoxious cousin Eustace. The three children are pulled into Narnia through a magical painting and find themselves aboard King Caspian’s ship, the “Dawn Treader.” Their mission: find the seven lost lords of Telmar, friends of Caspian’s father who were exiled during the events of the previous film. However, it quickly becomes clear that the stakes are far higher: a mysterious green mist – “pure evil” – is swallowing up innocent people and tempting others into wrongdoing. Only the magical swords of the seven lords, when united, can defeat the evil mist. The course of their journey loosely follows the plot of the books. Lucy still reads from the Magician’s Book, Eustace still gets turned into a dragon, and Caspian still falls in love with a beautiful star (in the literal sense!). The film climaxes with a journey to the source of the mist (the “Dark Island” from the book) and an explosive battle with a giant sea serpent.
Already, it’s obvious that some pretty heavy edits have been made to the story. Director Michael Apted has made a straight-up action fantasy movie, failing to recognize that “Dawn Treader” was never intended to be a story about battles. It’s a novel about maturation – most notably in the case of Eustace – and about pure adventure. There wasn’t an “evil mist” in the original story, nor was there a need for one. The novel was driven by its characters, not by an obligatory series of action scenes.
The biggest problem with “Dawn Treader” is that it’s much too short. Even at 2 hours, the film feels far too fast-paced. Virtually no time is spent on character development or slow reflection – it’s all about bigger and bigger effects, Michael Bay-style. To fully capture the essence of Lewis’ world, the movie should’ve been at least 45 minutes longer. Viewers are swept along from island to island, with little transition or explanation. A more talented screenwriter (someone along the lines of “Harry Potter” veteran Steve Kloves) could have done a much better job of adapting this complex novel.
But the killer for “Dawn Treader” is its utter lack of character development.
The emotional touchstone of the book is Eustace’s slow transformation from a spoiled brat into a courageous young man. After he’s magically turned into a dragon, Lewis takes great pains to describe his change of heart. Eventually, once he’s chosen to repent of his wrongdoing, the grace of Aslan saves him. The “Dawn Treader” film simply observes “oh, he’s been turned into a dragon, let’s take him with us” for no obvious reason. There’s no consideration given to his inner struggle – he’s apparently only left in dragon form so the visual effects team could design a “dragon versus sea serpent” matchup.
Lucy’s character is also underdeveloped. While there are some references to her secret desire to be as beautiful as her sister Susan – her primary vice – this isn’t resolved in a satisfying way. Lucy simply befriends a little stowaway girl (a Hollywood addition) and encourages her to be confident in who she is. It’s a pitifully thin, pop-psychology message that would have Lewis rolling over in his grave.
Caspian also fails to get the development he deserves. The book contains a strong sense of duty – upon taking the crown, Caspian swore an oath to find the seven lords of Narnia, no matter the risk. No matter how bad things get, he refuses to abandon his quest. This is his mission, one approved by Aslan himself. Unfortunately, in the movie Caspian is portrayed as little more than an adventurer. Whereas in the second film “Prince Caspian,” Caspian’s inner conflicts were explored, in “Dawn Treader” he’s reduced to a mere cardboard cutout. I would’ve liked to see Caspian struggling with a few issues of self-doubt.
The only main character who gets a fair treatment is Edmund. His twisted fascination with the White Witch – his “secret sin” – is a constant source of temptation to him. The “evil mist” can take the form of one’s greatest fears and darkest desires, lending an element of psychological terror to Edmund’s journey. Even though he’s forced to carry more of the story in this installment, his character is strong enough to do so.
Now, just to be fair, the “evil mist” isn’t altogether out of place. On its face, the story is about “conquering the demons within ourselves” – generally a strong plot element, and one that might’ve worked in this story. Unfortunately, the lack of character development robs the movie of any sense of urgency. Right before the climactic battle against the mist, I found myself rolling my eyes at the obligatory “soon it will be unstoppable!” comment. There’s no sense that this mist is actually going to do anything worse than lurk around in the eastern ocean.
It’s certainly clear from the start that there’s a different production team behind “Dawn Treader.” Director Andrew Adamson and composer Harry Gregson-Williams have been replaced by Michael Apted and David Arnold, respectively – interestingly, both veterans of the “James Bond” franchise. And in a lot of ways, the film has an almost “Bond-esque” tone – it’s about lots of action, little character development, and plenty of suspended disbelief. Unfortunately, that’s likely not what Lewis had in mind for his story.
Perhaps most tragically of all, by cutting out most of the character development, the filmmakers cut out the Christian heart of “Dawn Treader.” The books’ Christ figure, the great lion Aslan, barely appears in the film…and he doesn’t serve any purpose in terms of the plot. While the first film was clearly an allegory of the Gospel, and the second film dealt with the question of “where is God when things are terrible?”, this installment has no such resonance.
I didn’t hate “Dawn Treader.” It certainly has its strong moments, and it’s visually stunning. But it’s not the Narnia I was hoping for. I loved the sheer scope of “Lion/Witch/Wardrobe” and the dark, gritty feel of “Prince Caspian”…unfortunately there’s nothing in this one that’ll keep me coming back over and over again. From an objectionable-content standpoint, there’s really nothing to worry about – it’s nowhere near as violent as the first two films. For many families, it’ll make a good substitute for the grim, bloody “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.”
But sadly, if it’s Narnia you’re looking for, you might be searching in vain.
A sadly inadequate interpretation of the Narnia I grew up with.
Normalized Score: 1.6