film review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of The Dawn Treader

After a great start with the adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and a somewhat less enthralling (and war-laden) follow-up, Prince Caspian, the big-screen version of The Chronicles of Narnia rebounds with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The film doesn’t spend more than a few minutes on exposition, establishing the fact that the two younger Pevensie children are separated from their parents and older siblings during World War II, forced to live with their obnoxious cousin Eustace in London. Then, with barely any warning, the movie propels us into the fantasy world of Narnia in a literally immersive transitional scene. This is indicative of the movie as a whole, which is packed with—

—action and adventure, with relatively little time for introspection or characterization. As a result, I suspect younger moviegoers and audiences unfamiliar with the source material will especially enjoy the sweep and spectacle of this adventure yarn. Versatile director Michael Apted keeps things moving at a rapid clip, working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni.

Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes return as Lucy and Edmund. They do a fine job, although the intriguing scenes that confront their adolescent character flaws—Lucy’s wish for physical beauty, Edmund’s suppressed desire for power and riches—are dealt with rather hastily. Those fleeting moments tease us with the kind of thoughtful content that separates The Chronicles of Narnia from routine fantasy tales. I suppose readers of Lewis’ books will be able to fill in those gaps, while movie audiences are treated to a series of outsized adventures, brought to life with some truly breathtaking visual effects. The parade of cinematic spectacles begins when a painting in cousin Eustace’s house comes to life, and continues through encounters with a fire-breathing dragon and a particularly predatory sea serpent.

My highest praise is reserved for the character of the courageous mouse named Reepicheep. He appeared in the last film, as well, voiced by Eddie Izzard, but this time, with Simon Pegg providing his dialogue, he steals every scene he’s in. A courtly and implacable hero, he seems absolutely, utterly genuine, like an actor sharing the screen with his fellow thespians and not a computer-generated creation. To me, that is the ultimate achievement in visual effects—making the impossible seem real. He also serves as a kind of moral guide for Eustace, well-played by Will Poulter, who made a vivid impression several years ago in the British sleeper, Son of Rambow.

It may be imperfect, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader provides lively entertainment that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and makes an effort to substitute action for gratuitous violence. For meatier fare, one should turn to the Lewis novels.

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May 2024