"You have returned for a reason. You have come far. Now your journey lies beyond." -- Aslan
The third installment of the Narnia chronicles revolves around the two youngest of the Pevensie children, Lucy (Georgie Henley), and Edmund (Skandar Kyenes), returning to the magical land of Narnia, where they are legendary rulers, to join their friend, King Caspian (Ben Barnes), in a search for seven magical swords needed to drive an all encompassing evil that is infiltrating his newly peaceful realm. Also reluctantly drawn into the adventure is their annoying and skeptical cousin, Eustace (an excellent Will Pulter in his first feature role).
Plot-wise, this installment is the thinnest of the Narnia stories, as it lacks many of the twists and turns of others, and it does not include any grand battles. Yet The Dawn Treader has always been my favorite book in the series (it's actually the fifth installment), as it's the most character driven.
It is in this segment that the two lead characters of Lucy & Edmund face their final insecurities and emerge as fully realized individuals rather than as weaker shadows of their older siblings.
The character of Eustace is also essential here in providing both a cynical contrast to their ready acceptance of the fantastical world they find themselves in, as well as providing a focus for the story as a whole. If this is anyone's story, it is Eustace's; his character goes through the greatest trials and undergoes the most growth. It was interesting to note in the audience around us that Eustace's story arc produced the most laughter, gasps and oohs of wonder.
Having said that, the movie is still a visual feast. The titular ship, the Dawn Treader, is beautifully and skillfully realized, combining both practical design with enough of the fantastic to suggest that this is truly a magical realm. The same applies to many of the settings, and set pieces. If the movie falls short in any visual area, it's in a noticeable lack of Narnian talking beasts. Yes, there are some there, but not in the numbers you would expect from both the books and the previous two movies.
The one Narnian talking beast essential to the story of the Dawn Treader is the warrior mouse, Reepicheep, who this time around is voiced by Simon Pegg, rather than Eddie Izzard. Rather than try to do an Izzard impersonation, Pegg brings his own take to the character that adds a layer of gravitas and honor that plays well alongside the character's inherent sense of mischief.
Where the movie falls down is in several sub-plots hinted at but never picked up or explored. Hints are given that at various stages the ship's crew is on the verge of mutiny, but nothing ever develops to explain the potential conflict. A scene that establishes a potential rivalry between Edmund and Caspian over a mutual attraction to an ethereal woman is never followed up or resolved.
(Spoiler Alert: in the books, Caspian ends up with the girl.)
Perhaps the greatest weakness is, as in the last movie, the casting of Caspian. I'm sure Ben Barnes is an excellent actor, but in these movies he just doesn't project the regal presence needed, and never comes across as a natural leader. At one point when the captain of the ship tells Edmund the chain of command on board starts with Caspian, it doesn't carry any sense of conviction.
Caspian's inspirational speech to the crew before the climatic fight reminded me more of Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest than of Bill Pullman in Independence Day.
Director Michael Apted takes over for The Dawn Treader, and brings a different approach to the ongoing adaptations of C.S. Lewis's thinly veiled Christian allegorical fantasy series. Apted is an eclectic director with a mix of documentaries, real-life drama (Gorillas in the Mist), gritty TV (Rome) and high concept action movies (The World is Not Enough) on his resume; all of which he draws on here.
After the relative lackluster performance of the last Narnia movie (Prince Caspian) Disney withdrew its financing muscle from the series and that lack of budget is occasionally visible more by what is not on screen (no big crowd scenes, fewer talking beasts, smaller cast) rather than in any story-telling shortfalls.
Apted keeps the story telling tight and the set pieces atmospheric, while getting the most out his young actors, who have to carry a lot more of the story this time around. He also handles the religious allegorical aspects with tact and a subtlety that is, to be honest, missing in the source material. It's there if you know about it, but it doesn't push it on you in a way that ruins what is in essence simply a fun fantasy quest story.
Although there are another two stories left in the Narnian chronicles, I expect this will be that last of the big screen adaptations. As such it makes a fitting conclusion to an excellent trilogy that will hopefully lead a new generation to discover the original books.