The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is primarily a rousing, episodic adventure narrative—and how you feel about it may depend largely on your response to the unsubtle insertion of its allegorical components. The framing narrative finds Lucy and her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) left with relatives in London in the early months of World War II, while their now-adult siblings, Peter and Susan, have moved on with their lives. But a summoning back to Narnia is close at hand, and they return with their annoying cousin, Eustace (Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter), reluctantly in tow. King Caspian (Ben Barnes) is sailing his ship, The Dawn Treader, in search of seven lost noblemen once loyal to his father, and must defeat a nameless, faceless evil force along the way.
And let’s face it: Nameless, faceless evil forces don’t always make for the most compelling cinema. Where The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had Tilda Swinton’s magnificent White Witch, and Caspian at least had the cruel, usurping Miraz, Dawn Treader has a green mist that regularly takes the form of a character’s deepest fear or temptation. That certainly adds a bit of moral and psychological drama to the mix, but there’s no satisfying villainous focal point for this epic fantasy.
There is, however, the thoroughly welcome addition of Eustace to the Narnia universe—and the terrific casting of Poulter. He generally puts the rest of the cast members to shame playing the priggish, loud-mouthed boy, his improbably Spock-like eyebrows giving him the perfect look of the little devil. His evolving friendship with the swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (Simon Pegg, replacing Eddie Izzard) is deftly developed, but sold mostly by a young actor who knows how to convey learning life lessons.
As it turns out, there are plenty of lessons to be learned in Dawn Treader, which is where the collision between its conventional fantasy elements and its Christian subtext gets a little awkward. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Christian subtext per se; when Lucy struggles with vanity as she wishes herself as beautiful as Susan, or Edmund with envy when he gets angry over living in the shadow of both Peter and Caspain, there’s potent thematic material to explore. But it too often feels as though the scenes dealing with these issues were plunked down by director Michael Apted as though he needed to fill some quota. Moral struggle isn’t what The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about in movie form; it’s something that makes an obligatory appearance every 15 minutes or so.
And it’s a shame, because there’s both exciting action and genuine fun sprinkled throughout Dawn Treader’s two hours. While the sea serpent that attacks the ship looks like the same one that swallowed Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the climactic battle is effectively kinetic. Yet the charms of the film are challenged by the realization that, once again, Aslan is bound to turn into the leo ex machina that will solve all the really difficult problems with a mighty roar. He has lessons to impart, and many of those who go to see the movie might be going specifically for those lessons. And if they have to endure a little big-budget spectacle in order to be reminded that Aslan has another name in our world—wink, wink—that’s something they can live with.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER
Georgie Hensley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Liam Neeson