The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
A ‘Voyage’ that goes nowhere: Three films in, ‘Narnia’ series lacks drama
I suppose one should never completely abandon dull literary movie franchises. The third installment of “Harry Potter’’ remains the best of the lot, and they’re all an improvement over the dreary first two. But I’m afraid I’m running out of optimism for “The Chronicles of Narnia’’ series. After three movies, it still doesn’t work (there are four more books to go). Today brings “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.’’ It makes you realize that had Harry Potter not come into some lucky casting that series could look like this one: a high-end middle-school tribute to a book everybody’s read.
At some point, our young heroes are told they’ll need “great courage’’ to break an evil spell. Could that spell be boredom?
The big deal of C.S. Lewis’s book was the introduction of annoying cousin Eustace to the Pevensie children’s adventures. England remains perched on the cusp of WWII, and while Susan and Peter are off with their parents, Edmund and Lucy have been stuck with their unbearably pragmatic kin.
On the page, Lewis’s religious intent was clear. Eustace doesn’t believe in Narnia until, of course, he does. But to a young reader, who can’t yet make out Lewis’s Christian allegory, Eustace’s skepticism mocks the magical fun we had in the preceding books and would like to continue having. He was another villain. The movie accidentally upends his disdain. That disenchantment now is ours. Once Eustace experiences the holy, computer-generated lion-lord, Aslan (Liam Neeson’s voice), his snobbery melts into worshipful awe, which, sadly, isn’t viral.
Still, Will Poulter, the young actor who plays Eustace, uses his flared pig nostrils to create a mild, obnoxious diversion. He, Lucy (Georgie Henley), and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) enter Narnia through a seascape painting and spend a lot of the time — too much — aboard the Dawn Treader, which is captained by the former Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), now king of Narnia. Barnes still looks like he’s king of Pine Valley or “General Hospital.’’ He’s soap-operating. Caspian’s quest entails the rescue of seven lost lords and their swords in order to keep Narnia from doom. His climactic, Henry V-ish pre-combat speech would be rousing only if Agincourt were the name of a new Narnian nightclub.
Caspian devotes time to squabbling with Edmund over who is truly king, while Lucy obsesses over her looks. That, really, is the film’s most fascinating development. It’s the movie’s only real human development. She doesn’t think she’s as beautiful as Susan, which is touching since it’s too soon to tell whether Susan actually is a beauty. At some point, Lucy’s fascination attracts a dark spell in which she and her sister become the same person. If “Black Swan’’ is playing in an adjacent theater, the envy from next door might be palpable.
Otherwise, “The Dawn Treader’’ features all the swordfights and ectoplasmic industrial light and magic you’d expect. It’s true that the appearances of a giant fire-breathing dragon and an enormous (and effectively disgusting) slug are fun for a scene. But they’re in the service of a story that now functions like the instructional plot of certain video games: “Until you lay down the seventh sword, evil has the upper hand.’’ All that’s missing is a sinister “Mwwa-ha-ha-ha’’ or witch’s cackle.
The veteran director Michael Apted has been brought aboard “The Dawn Treader,’’ and he keeps things safe and professional. Still, it looks as if Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings’’ movies have made all other murky, epic-scale computer-generated action look derivative. Apted might have had a better time whipping up filthy sight gags for his lone James Bond movie, “The World Is Not Enough,’’ another autopilot franchise. Wholesomeness becomes Apted as well, but how does he cope with the swashbuckling mice, turning Tilda Swinton into a job for Ghostbusters, and one instance of Aslan ex machina?
“The Dawn Treader,’’ like its predecessors, has no real struggle or drama. We’re dealing with kids for whom everything comes too easily for us to care. When lost or scared or in need of protection, they need only turn heavenward. Aslan is an amazement for them. But He’s hell on excitement.