|Is he Jesus, or are we just really high?|
For a while it seemed we would never see another Chronicles of Narnia film.
After the financial disappointment of the second film, Prince Caspian, in 2008, Walt Disney Pictures first pushed back the production of the a third film, then dropped it altogether after they couldn’t agree with Walden Media (the film’s production company) on just how much they were willing to spend for another movie.
Thankfully, 20th Century Fox rode to the rescue and agreed to provide a portion of the $140 million budget for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third flick based on the series of beloved children’s books by C. S. Lewis. With a new distributor on board, the creative team at Walden Media reassembled the cast (with the addition of some new faces) and continued the chronicles.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is set a year after the events of Prince Caspian. The four Pevensie children still remember fondly their days rescuing Narnia from darkness, but darkness has come to pervade their own world. The two older Pevensie children, Peter and Susan, are all grown up and off pursuing adventures of their own. War has ravaged Britain, and the two younger Pevensie children, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are holed up in Cambridge with an aunt and uncle they don’t like and their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), whom they downright despise.
As they begin to lament their status in our world more and more, a mysterious painting of an ocean suddenly begins leaking water, and after being submerged, the Pevensie children and Eustace find themselves transported to the world of Narnia.
Floundering in an ocean, the trio are picked up by the Dawn Treader, captained by Caspian (Ben Barnes), now King of Narnia and traveling throughout his realm to restore peace. Caspian greets his old friends, and does his best to take care of Eustace, who spends much of his time shrieking at the sight of talking Narnian animals.
Lucy and Edmund find themselves suddenly embroiled in Caspian’s quest to find the seven lost lords of Narnia, all banished in the dark times before he became king. Each of the lords has a magical Narnian sword, you see, and with these seven swords laid at the table of Aslan (the Jesus Allegory Lion voiced by Liam Neeson), Caspian can banish evil and set things right.
Lewis’ original construction of a simple, straightforward quest story serves the film well. The stage is set, the objective is laid out, and our heroes set forth to find what they’re looking for, facing whatever obstacles hover into their path in the process. There’s nothing particularly creative about this kind of storytelling, but that’s because it’s a tried and true format. Where director Michael Apted (he directed The World is Not Enough, but I try not to hold that against him) and his creative team succeed is in finding creative and exciting ways to complete this journey.
Dawn Treader is filled to bursting with fun fantasy bits, from deserted islands to evil slavers to magic to mysterious green mist to one of the creepiest sea monsters you’ll ever see. It’s all assembled with a clean, glossy, fast-paced feel that has none of that old fashioned Disney plastic feeling (you know what I’m talking about). Apted is successful in engineering a world that we can fully immerse ourselves in, something that fantasy films often struggle with.
Where the film fails is developing a genuine connection to the people who inhabit it. Edmund and Lucy aren’t exactly wooden, but they have little personal connection to the viewer. They’re just wondering, wide-eyed and action hungry, through a landscape they’ve already seen, hoping for new adventures. Motivations for each of them are touched upon, mostly through the theme of overcoming temptation (Ah, those classic C. S. Lewis Christian overtones…), but it never feels that they’re real. Even cousin Eustace, who serves dual purposes as comic relief and redemptive soul, seems like a puppet amid all the action. Nothing’s really wrong with any of the acting, but Narnia itself is the film’s most realized character. Everyone else is at times little more than a chess piece.
Despite this, Dawn Treader manages to remain a fun slice of family adventure. It’s never going to be Harry Potter, but The Chronicles of Narnia remains a viable family fantasy franchise. Here’s hoping a fourth film is on the way.
Matt’s Call: Far from perfect, but also far from the worst you can do at the cinema this holiday season. Take the kids and enjoy the ride.