The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Poor Narnia. Of all the book-to-film adaptations it could have come the closest to giving Harry Potter a serious run for his not inconsiderable money, but the Chronicles have never really had a chance to steal their competitor’s thunder. With the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe providing a solid dose of fantasy fodder, the franchise faltered with second instalment Prince Caspian. The entire cast outshone by a CGI mouse, the general public failed to arrive in the quantities required to offset the considerable cost of filming. Dropped by Disney, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader had a taste of development Hell before being thrown a lifeline by 20th Century Fox.
With the third book in the series, like Harry Potter’s Prisoner of Azkaban, proving one of the most popular with fans, the scene was set for a Narnia movie to deliver a layered and satisfyingly dramatic tale of faith and adventure. Mind you, with the two elder Pevensie siblings left to sit this one out and one character set to spend half the movie covered in scales the last thing the production needed was to have its budget cut. While Lucy (Henley) and Edmund (Keynes) have developed impressively throughout the movies to date, they are not yet ready to carry an instalment on their own. While Ben Barnes is once again passable as Prince Caspian and Reepicheep (Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard) does what he can, Dawn Treader spends most of the movie adrift. It is Will Poulter (as Eustace Scrubb) who promises to save the day – that is, however, until he is turned into the year’s least impressive dragon and sidelined until the final reel.
With each instalment separated by hundreds of years (Narnia time), it is impossible to invest in the ongoing saga. Comparisons to the aforementioned Potter franchise are inevitable – as the latter develops slowly over each movie, Narnia stops and starts with each individual adventure, the various children’s love of the land beyond the wardrobe/subway/painting not as easily related to as Harry’s love of Hogwarts. Narnia’s Holy Lion is no Dumbledore, Reepicheep is no Dobby and the Pevensie children simply do not warrant the same emotional investment as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Almost certain that God Aslan isn’t about to start sacrificing his children, the films just doesn’t hold the dramatic weight of other, more hardened fantasies. The first two Potters were rubbish too but by now, movie three, it is becoming clear that Narnia is just made of fluffier stuff; perfectly acceptable for most of the movie, until the children pick up weapons and prepare to fight a Holy war.
That said, the film is not without joyous moments. The scenes set in war-torn Britain are surprisingly well handled, with director Michael Apted clearly more at home in the Blitz than with interactions between an omnipotent lion and a swashbuckling mouse. Similarly, the entrance and exit from Narnia provide gasp-worthy uses of special effects, as too does Aslan’s parting of the Red set. Arguably the most promising scene of the movie, however, was teased in the theatrical trailer but neutered in the finished film. As the Dawn Treader fills with fog, revealing to its crew their deepest fears and darkest desires, Edmund is confronted by a smoky apparition of the first movie’s Ice Queen (Tilda Swinton). As sensual as she is startling, Swinton makes the young Pevensie an offer he finds nigh on impossible to refuse. A scene with tantalisingly dark promise, the potential is left unrealised as Harry stabs the basilisk through the mouth with the sword of Gryffindor Edmund stabs the sea monster through the mouth with the sword of King Peter with disappointing immediacy.
A functional fantasy film with glimmers of greatness, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader does what it can with a thinly veiled religious metaphor, a dramatically counter-effective narrative and an impractically small budget. When Poulter isn’t stealing the show, it is a pale reflection of another Christmas-entwined fantasy saga despite being decades more venerable than its cinematically superior counterpart. Still, should you deem Rare Exports inappropriate this Christmas, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a suitably festive and functional alternative.