The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

And he almost deserved it

The most magical and complete of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series of children’s novels no doubt presented a tall order for director Michael Apted.  The book is presented in episodic fashion, with Lewis giving us a different tale in each chapter, such that a reader might have a different adventure each night before bed.  As such, the one arc holding the story together is rather flimsy when presented dramatically, and requires a bit of invention on the part of the filmmakers in order to deliver something that feels urgent and complete.

The cast is an amalgamation of familiar faces from the first two films.  Skandar Keynes returns as Edmund, who has graduated from Turkish Delight to solid gold conchs; and Georgie Henley finally takes her long-deserved lead role as Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, who is now old enough to be concerned with all of the harmful trappings that come with being a teenage girl in present-day human society (trappings that Lewis did nothing but perpetuate by having Lucy obsess about her own physical appearance).  Ben Barnes reprises his role as Caspian (for the last time as a young man, if the books are to be followed); and Will Poulter, a young newcomer, takes on the tough role of Eustace Scrubb, the Pevensies’ obnoxious cousin, who undergoes more than one transformation during the course of the story.  Simon Pegg takes over as the voice of Reepicheep, the talking mouse knight, replacing Eddie Izzard, and Liam Neeson still plays Jesus in lion form.

In the novel, Lucy and Edmund go back to Narnia in order to help Caspian find seven Lords who were once banished by his evil uncle.  That’s all.  In the film, there’s a generous injection of stock fantasy material: not only must the protagonists find the Lords, but they must recover magical swords (MacGuffin time!) in order to repel a dangerous mist that has been whisking sailors away to Dark Island.  This is also an excuse to bring back Tilda Swinton as the dead White Witch, Jadis (I’m not complaining; she is wonderful).  However, instead of adding further inventions, such as a villain, Apted and screenwriter Christopher Markus simply rearrange the adventures from the novel and milk/draw out the already-resolved ones for further drama (and CG opportunities).  For example, a very brief brush with a sea serpent during the first half of the novel becomes an epic battle at the end of the film. Where Eustace is a nuisance through only a small part of the book, lightening up after living a few days as a dragon, both Eustace’s grating personality and his tenure as a winged beast are strung through two-thirds of the film.  It works as a narrative film technique because, as characters are generally expected to change by the end, it only makes sense to have them change at the end, at least in a fantasy film for children.

While Lewis denied any intentional allegory in these novels, he wrote them shortly after becoming a born-again Christian (coming from a life of Atheism), so the Christian themes are certainly there.  The film tones this down (mostly) in favor of providing shallow, Grimm-style moral lessons for children, and lays on a bit of the Christian lessons later.  I prayed (figuratively) that the writers would omit a certain line from the book, but alas, if there’s one thing these films have been, it’s loyal to the bare-bones events of the books.  Ultimately, though, it’s harmless.

Where the film beats the previous ones (and also where it falls short after beginning to succeed) is the development of and the conflict between the characters.  Right off the bat, Edmund and Caspian have a conflict: they disagree on fundamental issues to the degree that they end up drawing weapons and threatening physical violence on one another.  They make up with the aid of Lucy, the level-headed, more intelligent female, but the conflict doesn’t end.  They both have eyes for Lilliandil (Laura Brent), a living star who guides the group to a certain island.  The conflict, however, is abandoned.  The battle at the end is apparently enough to quell any disagreements between two very different young men from very different worlds, thus we are left with a few loose ends.

Ultimately, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is dramatically superior, better-written, and more responsibly handled than 2008’s Prince Caspian, which attempted to add darkness and grit to a story for children, and ended up with a story full of kids and talking animals apathetically committing murder after murder.  This movie brings back the magic – how interesting that this should be the case when a film is taken away from the Disney company.  Georgie Henley finally comes into her own as Lucy, rivaling young-adult heroines such as Dakota Blue Richards and Emma Watson, and the supporting cast, including Gary Sweet as Drinian and Billie Brown as Coriakin the Magician, possess their roles as plot devices well.   You’ll probably notice them more on a second viewing.

Maybe it’s time to stop making these movies.  The Pevensie Trilogy is done.  The remaining four books are going to be difficult to adapt.  Non-readers may wonder why we don’t have the same main characters and the same magic as before – not to mention why the writers apparently hate Mormons, Islam, and the Pope.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010); written by Christopher Markus (based on the novel by C.S. Lewis); directed by Michael Apted; starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Will Poulter.

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