For the third Narnia franchise installment, 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 7Up documentary 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 story that wears its well-worn primary narrative device like an afterthought.
Instead of collecting five rings ala the Lord of the Rings trilogy or seven horcruxes ala Harry Potter, the characters here must track down seven ancient swords belonging to the lost (read: deceased) Lords of Narnia in order to save a world of fantasy from some vaguely named threat. The opposing forces of evil might or might 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 in search of the novel on which this disappointing movie is based.�
Youngest siblings of the Penvensie family, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are joined by their thin-skinned cousin Eustace (played for laughs by Will Poulter). Poulter (Son of Rambow) surprisingly steals the movie out from under its sporadically impressive special effects with his arching eyebrows and a grating voice that miraculously makes him the film's most endearing character. Eustace is selfish and has no interest in adventure.
As such he has more to gain, if considerably less to lose, than his well-connected cousins.
Underage Edmund desperately wants to enlist in the British military. Lucy wants to be adored, like her older sister, for her natural beauty. Inside their not-so-safe European home the trio are swept off to the fantastic dimension of Narnia by a painting of a ship at sea. Thousands of gallons of ocean water fill up their bedroom and transport Edmund, Lucy and Will 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, like the trio being taken prisoner by slave-traders, come and pass like so much unnecessary narrative 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 truly 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.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the 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. Grade: C
Opens Dec. 10. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.