Summary: Not the best of fantasy, but a traditional, playful, even melancholy adventure still.
Review: The third entry in Walden Media’s adaptation of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ may, unfortunately, be the last. This is due to diminishing box office returns, Disney’s abandonment of the franchise, and the sad fact that the movies weren’t great. That isn’t to say that they are not good. I like all three films in varying degrees, mostly for the impressive cast, production design, music, and source story by the inimitable C.S. Lewis, but despite being entertaining adventures, they lack that blissful hypnotism associated with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ that demand endless excursions into the fantasy world.
‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, despite tying the titular voyage together with a new, rather rote plot, stays mostly true to the book’s events. The difficulty in adapting this episodic story into a movie is that, as Stanley Kubrick observed, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.” Considering that several of Kubrick’s films were literary adaptations, it doesn’t mean that a story like ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ should not or cannot be filmed, but rather that the focus should be on the repeating themes and narrative melodies at play. Thankfully, the filmmakers obviously understood this and plucked the proper notes, retaining the thoughtful, playful, even melancholy tone of the source material in a suitably cinematic way. I always thought that ‘Dawn Treader’ was rather sad. It is the last Narnian Chronicle with the Pevensie children in a lead role, as they grow wise from their adventures and the Christlike Aslan informs them that they won’t return. It’s an end to childhood. This makes for a rather fitting end for the Walden Media series, if technically premature, as there are two books left to go. Still, it is satisfying to know that we got to see the Pevensies complete their Narnian tenure.
What ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ lacks, I already mentioned above: Blissful hypnotism. While the characters express a longing to return in each installment, we don’t necessarily hear the call. The trouble is, while the stories are good, the setting is simple like a fable or fairy tale and doesn’t have the richness and complexity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ perfectly captured Middle-Earth so to as convince us that such a world may exist. Light revealed earthy wonders, and shadows concealed things unimaginable. While Lewis’ ‘Chronicles’ are children’s books and don’t burden the reader with details, the filmmakers had the chance to enrich Narnia and generally muffed it. When the Pevensies became royalty, it was believable in a sort of storybook way, but without a picture of what great things they wrought in their time, it felt awkward instead of wondrous. When the Dawn Treader sails beyond Narnia, there should be a solidity to the realm that lends contrast to the proceedings and thusly greater adventure.
Complaints aside, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ is an entertaining, whimsical, accessible journey that plays like a ’40s serial, with debts owed to Michael Curtiz pirate pictures, Ray Harryhausen monster movies, and even a moment or two from ‘Ghostbusters’. The best sequence is the climax, an excellent battle with a scary, demonic sea serpent summoned from Edmund’s nightmares. It was fun to watch a sea serpent and an English boy-turned-dragon do battle above a ship populated by minotaurs, dwarfs, fauns, and the occasional child royal.
In total, ‘Dawn Treader’ isn’t at the head of the pack, but it isn’t a waste of time at all, especially if you’ve seen and enjoyed the previous two entries and the novels which inspired them.