Return to hope.
I’ve enjoyed the Narnia movies, but they’ve obviously not sparked the national interest the producers were hoping for. With this third installment in the hands of Fox — after Disney opted to punt the franchise — the pressure’s on C.S. Lewis’ beloved fantasy series to bring home the bacon.
Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley) are distraught, forced to live with their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter, Son of Rambow), a contemptible twerp intent on making their lives miserable. They yearn for Narnia, a wish that is granted when the siblings (and Eustace) find themselves sucked into a magic painting and plopped aboard the royal sailing vessel, The Dawn Treader. Reunited with King Caspian (Ben Barnes, Easy Virtue), they learn of a new evil threatening Narnia, a terrifying green mist that’s abducting Narnians, corrupting its victims with nightmares and temptation. Their quest: to defeat the mist using plot devices, get their island hop on, and eventually reach the edge of the world to see Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson, Taken).
I read this book eons ago, so I wasn’t as tuned in to how far the film’s plot may have strayed. If you’re a Narnia purist, there’s a chance you might be perturbed by the creative liberties the filmmakers took in the process. Then again, if you didn’t have much problem with the big battle scenes in the first two films, perhaps Voyage of the Dawn Treader won’t offend.
The book, as I recall, was episodic; our heroes bouncing from island to island, meeting magical beasties and slave traders, before reaching Aslan’s country. While they do still arrive at the Big Lion’s stomping grounds, a new villain has been introduced to give the Edmund, Lucy, Caspian and the kids a greater sense of purpose. There is no green mist in the book that kidnaps rowboatfuls of Narnians and the original sea serpent has been granted Final Boss privileges here. Additionally, the key to defeating the mist — tracking down the seven magic swords of the lost Narnia lords — has been invented as a Maguffin.
My response to these contrivances is mixed. While I understand the need to craft a functioning movie experience out of a book that doesn’t lend itself easily to such a feat, the manner in which the writers went about it comes across as forced and clunky. We learn about the sword scenario through a hasty bit of exposition provided by a mysterious wizard who is in and out of the film in a blink, and the actual retrieval of the swords is surprisingly easy, with the characters stumbling upon them thanks to convenient scripting. Add to that an unsettling amount of lazy writing (“Oh, that mansion!”) plus some clumsy narrative decisions (what again is the point of the little girl stowaway other than a blatant demographic reach?), and Voyage of the Dawn Treader not so much cruises along the waves, but gets tossed about like an offensive lineman in a dingy.
It’s not all bad. The bumps in the story even out as the endgame approaches, and a central character undergoes a surprising and entertaining transformation, culminating in a large-scale face-off with said sea serpent. The Aslan-charged finale is genuinely touching, and Ben Barnes has mercifully shed his indecipherable accent from Prince Caspian thus making his character a thousand times more tolerable.
Theology-wise, Voyage of the Dawn Treader falls between the obvious Christian allegory of the first film and the darker, more subtle undertones of the second; aside from some lines about temptation, the religious flavors don’t resonate until the very end.
Fox’s Blu-ray set is a champ, a three-disc assembly (BD, DVD, Digital Copy) pulled together in attractive fold-out packaging. The Blu picture quality (1.78:1, 1080p, MPEG 4-AVC encoded) is strong, the mystical, magical tone of the film coming across beautifully in a well-detailed treatment. The sea-faring sequences look great, but the video fidelity is stretched even better during stopovers at the many exotic locales. These islands are foliage-packed, volcanic, or shrouded in darkness, and they all look great in high definition. The visual effects are generally excellent, save for a few moments with the mist and (surprisingly) shots involving a CGI Dawn Treader, which clash with the excellent life-sized boat that was constructed for the shoot. An aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track pushes the sound, which will plunge your living room into glorious chaos during the big sea serpent finale. Too bad David Arnold’s score isn’t more memorable.
Bonus materials appear plentiful at first — divided up by an interactive island map with a healthy number of islands — but appearances are deceiving. Most of these extras consist of brief bits about the film’s mythology, narrated by an actor in character. The only meaty offerings are a handful of deleted scenes, a two-minute interview montage with the cast and crew, three Fox Movie Channel featurettes, and short segments on the FX of the Narnia portal scene, the staging of the sea battle, and a visual effects comparison. Commentary from director Michael Apted and producer Mark Johnson, and an interactive match game round out what is really a lightweight selection.
A few lashes and some deck-swabbing will hopefully get you in shape for The Magician’s Nephew.