There is no stinting on the sumptuous factor in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA -- THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. Once the action shifts from World War II England to the magical kingdom ruled by Aslan (Liam Neeson‘s sonorous voice), the wise lion and stand-in for Christ, every frame is filled to the brim with color-saturated wonder, some good, some evil. This is in keeping with the underlying theological themes preserved in the screenplay adapted by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Patroni from the C.S. Lewis novel. Director Michael Apted has injected a greater sense of adventure in this installment, though the references to having faith do little to prevent much of the dialogue from sounding very much like a Sunday sermon without the actual references to specifically Christian names.
There is, alas, a lack of emotional urgency to the piece that a quest film ought to have. There is little enough emotional engagement at all, so earnest and wholesome are the protagonists. There is, though, the saving grace of Cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). He is the doubter of the piece, the one who cannot believe in what he cannot see. He’s also selfish, boorish, and, as the film begins, given to wondering if there are any unpleasant consequences to impaling his cousins the way he impales the insects he collect. The cousins are the younger two Pevensie children, Edmund (Skander Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), sent to stay with relatives in Cambridge while their parents and elder siblings are in America on war business.
The return to Narnia is achieved in this installment by way of a painting. The seascape it depicts begins to roll, the ship gradually makes its way from the distance to the edge. Water spills from the frame, the room is soon inundated and when the three break the surface, it’s in Narnia, or rather its ocean. The ship is the titular Dawn Treader, and aboard are Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the eponymous hero of the last film, and refreshingly far more macho is he in this film, though, despite a severe hair-mussing, that is not the same thing as being macho per se. And Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), the plucky mouse with a sense of adventure out of all proportion to his size. The quest is to find the seven mythical swords that Aslan has left scattered about and return them to a banquet table where three kings sit in a kind of torpor brought on by a bad attitude. The mystery is why the Pevensie children have returned without being summoned, but once the slavers attack, and the star maiden comes to earth with her glowy good looks, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) makes her cameo, and Eustace goes missing in the valley of the dragon’s golden treasure, such concerns fall by the wayside.
The special effects are nicely conceived if not dazzling. From creepy crawly green mist that weaves itself menacingly around the landscape before tempting or devouring the unwary, to a monumental battle between a golden dragon and a sea serpent that doesn‘t move quite as quickly as it should, but does serve up some vivid images of nasty, spiny things. The camera swoops, the serpents coils scintillate nicely, and if the principals involved don’t generate any real sense of danger, Reepicheep embodies enough swagger, swash, buckle, and devil-may-care ripostes to keep things interesting both here and elsewhere. Indeed, it is his unlikely bonding with Eustace that offers the film’s truest moments as Poulter brings a tone of authority to his petulance that is delightfully pompous. Henley and Keynes are a nice change from the precocious breed of cinematic child, but do not overcome the problem of making noble and nice cinematically interesting. They aren’t exactly tiresome, but are within hailing distance of it.
The denouement brings the sermon home, with Aslan slyly revealing to Lucy that he is known by another name in her world, and that she must seek him out there. A ponderous moment, and one that subtracts from the genuinely bittersweet decision Reepicheep makes for himself. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA - THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER is the best of the three films, and leaves the door open for another installment. One can only hope the series is on an upswing, and that a fourth trip to Narnia will be worth the trouble.