by Tim Ross
When you’re an epic fantasy film series growing up in the age of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, you’d better bring your A game. Such is the case with the latest installment of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
It’s the most sophisticated Narnia offering to date, as the series seems set to regain the momentum it lost after “Prince Caspian.” In fact, the cost of “Prince Caspian” – and its lagging sales – prompted Disney to back out of committing to produce or finance any additional films in the series. 20th Century Fox stepped in to produce “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” and they just may reap the benefits.
Still, the Narnia series has labored in the shadows of the franchise megahits of Potter and Rings. Witness the current $244 million-and-counting haul of part one of the final Harry Potter film and the buzz surrounding the finally green-lit return to Middle Earth as the Hobbit films get under way.
Make no mistake, Narnia is big. The seven-book Christian allegory by C.S. Lewis has sold 100 million copies in the last 50 years. It’s an enduring classic, but the early films never quite stepped out of the huge shadow of their hefty contemporaries. The first installment, “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe,” made $250 million in theaters while the follow up, “Prince Caspian,” managed to recoup only half its budget.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” could revive the series and make the telling of all seven books a Hollywood possibility. This Narnia is a fast-paced adventure with fantastic effects and tight acting that will satisfy fantasy lovers and C.S. Lewis fans alike.
A new crew has been assembled, including director Michael Apted with a new writing team, and they have chosen to do more with less. It works. Our heroes are reduced from four Pevensies to two, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes). Peter and Susan have outgrown their need to believe in Narnia or the help that they can lend there.
The siblings, however, are accidentally accompanied by their insufferable cousin, Eustable Scrubb, a suitably scowling Will Poulter. And Ben Barnes is back as Prince Caspian but he has lost the unidentifiable accent he used in the prior film – a welcome loss.
Perhaps most importantly, Apted helms a clearer story, one that focuses more on the characters and how they’re affected by the journey. The adventurers are largely confined to the Narnian ship, the Dawn Treader, and the islands they visit, so the story focuses inward, examining their fears, hopes and how belief in that which they cannot see can guide them.
The writing still fails to capture the taut, intelligent storytelling of the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series, but they do succeed in telling a story that moves at a brisk pace while being crystal clear with Lewis’ original allegorical points. Narnia is a place that exists both in another world and in the hearts of believers. If one can believe in Aslan there, one can believe in God here.
Georgie Henley delivers a capable performance as Lucy even though she’s lost some of the little girl charm that came so readily to her in the first two films. She has aged into a young woman and she carries it well. So, too, has Skandar Keynes, as Edmund, matured as an actor. Both have grown up in the series and both displayed a comfort that served the story well.
Ben Barnes was a pleasant surprise. The young actor looked lost in “Prince Caspian,” overwhelmed by the burden to carry the story and not aided by the writing or direction. Here he is more in command of his ship, his faculties and his character’s arc. Also new is the voice of the beloved swash-buckling mouse Reepicheep, with Simon Pegg delivering wry jokes and earnestness as the noble rodent.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is an enjoyable experience and, while the Christian themes are, by far, the most pronounced in this latest installment of Narnia, it does not sink the Dawn Treader in dogma. It remains to be seen if The Chronicles of Narnia will now sail into the sunset or be back with another installment of the C.S. Lewis classics.
Grade: 3/4 Stars