Treading Water

Not even a talented director can save Narnia from the forces of Hollywood mediocrity

For the third Chronicles of Narnia installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, veteran director Michael Apted takes over helming duties performed by Andrew Adamson on the first two films. Sadly, Apted—the filmmaker famous for the hugely influential documentaries The Up Series—is confined by a script that is a mere sketch of C.S. Lewis’ original novel.

The result is a disposable children’s adventure that wears its well-worn primary narrative device like an afterthought. Instead of collecting five rings a la the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the characters here must track down seven ancient swords belonging to the lost Lords of Narnia in order to save a world of fantasy from some vaguely named threat. The opposing forces of evil may or may not affect the actual World War II reality from which our trio of young British protagonists temporarily escape. There isn’t enough meat on the bones here to send potential readers searching for the novel on which this disappointing movie is based. Youngest siblings of the Pevensie family, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are joined by their thin-skinned cousin Eustace, played for laughs by Will Poulter, whose arching eyebrows and grating voice make him the film’s most memorable character. Inside their not-so-safe European home, the trio are swept off to the fantastic dimension of Narnia when a painting of a ship at sea floods their bedroom with thousands of gallons of ocean water. Edmund, Lucy and Eustace are transported to Prince Caspian’s sailing ship, the Dawn Treader. Ben Barnes reprises his role as the good-natured Prince who chaperones the visitors to his kingdom. Edmund and Lucy have the status of King and Queen of Narnia, but you wouldn’t know it.

Onboard the ship we’re reacquainted with Reepicheep, a chatty rat who thinks he’s a mouse, and the minotaur whose presence is barely felt. Potentially dramatic events, such as the trio being taken prisoner by slave-traders, come and pass like sea foam.

Sensitive audiences concerned with the material’s religious underpinnings have little to be concerned about. Although there is some soft-peddled Christian mysticism that comes at the end of the third act, Dawn Treader is primarily concerned with spectacle set pieces involving a gigantic eel-like sea monster and a fire-breathing dragon who has been transformed from his human form by way of a curse.

Vanity, ego, greed and cowardice are the pernicious enemies that threaten to overpower our young adventurers. These internal forces rear their ugly heads just long enough for audiences to give them a passing thought before the themes are smoothed over with pomp and circumstance.

Dawn Treader is blandly enjoyable but never fun or gratifying. By the time the mighty lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) makes his obligatory appearance to expedite safe passage for the children back to their families, the best that can be said is that the special effects were good. It’s a mantra film audiences seem doomed to repeat on a more frequent basis as Hollywood delves deeper into making films that are all surface and no substance. This is one time where you almost wish they’d pushed the religious allegories. At least then there might have been something to mull over.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ★★☆☆☆