This is a dark hour for Narnia, children. The threat comes not from the fearsome giants of the North, or the warlike Telmarines. As Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) explains at the outset of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (20th Century Fox), those foes have been subdued and there is peace in the kingdom. The villain in this tale, the third in the Chronicles of Narnia series, is the menacing horde known as the Moviegoing Public, without whose tribute no movie franchise can long survive. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) was a hit, grossing $745 million worldwide. But its sequel, Prince Caspian (2008), cost more to make and earned far less ($419 million), prompting Walt Disney Studios to abandon Narnia. Apparently not even a sequel starring a talking mouse could persuade them to bury their faces in Aslan's mane one more time.
Fox has ridden to the franchise's rescue and, together with Walden Media, brings us Dawn Treader, sporting a tighter budget and a higher ticket price thanks to the introduction of 3-D effects. The film will need both of these assets to claw its way to profitability. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is among the most beloved of the seven books in C.S. Lewis' series, but it's also one of the trickiest to adapt for the screen.
When the movies first arrived, much was made of how Walden, a production company with evangelical ties, would handle the Christian allegory at the heart of the Chronicles. The more pressing issue for director Michael Apted (of the acclaimed Up series, new to Narnia), is how to squeeze a blockbuster out of Dawn Treader, a tale in which Lewis is at his most Oxford donnish. The first two Narnia books narrate mortal struggles of good versus evil. The third is the story of a poky pilgrimage, infused with elements of The Faerie Queene and the King James Bible. I wish I could say the movie has risen to the challenge. Alas, its attempts to overcome the story's episodic nature are clumsy, its effects only intermittently special, and its dufflepuds not nearly funny enough. The dufflepuds—one-legged, dunderheaded dwarfs looked after by an exiled magician—are Lewis' comic riff on Caliban. In the book, they're hilarious.
When we last left Narnia, Aslan, the realm's combination Lion King/Christ figure, had just explained to Peter and Susan, the elder two Pevensie children, that they'd made their final visit to his kingdom. (Narnia is a land of talking beasts and wicked witches but it is not a land of training bras—by the end of Prince Caspian, Susan had started to attract glances from the dauphin that bordered dangerously on the PG-13.) Dawn Treader features the younger two Pevensies, Edmund (Skander Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), as well as their cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter, excellent)—a peevish, punctilious little blighter in dire need of a fantastical adventure to untwist his knickers.
In one of the movie's best effects—drawn from a somewhat perfunctory passage in Lewis' book—the three children are summoned to Narnia through a magical painting, a seascape that suddenly comes to life, filling a London flat with Narnian brine. Rescued from the deep by their old friend Caspian, the children are brought aboard his ship, the titular Dawn Treader. There the prince explains that he's on a journey to discover the fates of seven lords who fled Narnia after his father was murdered by the usurper Miraz. Edmund and Lucy, veterans of this enchanted world, happily sign on for whatever excitement awaits them on its high seas. Eustace, meanwhile, scowls and complains and is caught bogarting provisions from the hold by the valiant mouse Reepicheep (a CGI creation voiced with aplomb by Simon Pegg).
What follows are a series of adventures across several islands, each of which tests the mettle, though more often the character, of our pilgrims. Caspian and Edmund learn a lesson about greed when they discover a pond that has the Midas touch, Lucy about vanity when she casts a spell to make herself as beautiful as her older sister. Even Eustace becomes less of a wet blanket after he is transformed into a dragon and called upon to help the Dawn Treader battle a ghastly, your-kid-will-have-nightmares sea serpent.
The movie should have been content to spin these tales of moral progress and send the audience back into the street eagerly debating which stalwart of the British screen would bring appropriate gravitas to the role of Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle in part 4, The Silver Chair. Instead, in an effort to give our heroes some higher duty, the screenwriters introduce a confusing wrinkle: Caspian and company must locate and unite seven swords, lest a strange, green, gaseous evil be loosed throughout Narnia. This unwanted dash of Tolkien-esque questing does little to move the story along. It also lends the movie a sense of foreboding that doesn't befit Lewis' cheery tale. If only the makers of Dawn Treader had learned the lesson Lucy does when she casts that forbidden spell: Don't try to be something you're not.