Even the first and worst Harry Potter can fly circles around this lumbering claptrap, so it's probably not fair to compare this third trip to the Narnia well to the infinitely superior Deathly Hallows. Still, it's instructive to consider the care and craft that has gone into each successive Potter film while Narnia offers up only ever-diminishing returns. Its acting has become more amateurish, the scripting more threadbare and the special effects less special. Where Deathly Hallows skipped 3-D gimmickry and instead focused on effects filled with mood and atmosphere, Disney has compromised its already plastic-like visuals with after-the-fact 3-D that cheapens everything but the ticket price.
The whole affair feels like a bargain-basement version of every fantasy film you've ever seen, where Liam Neeson and Tilda Swinton have been paid a quick day rate to make voice-over cameos.
Once again, we're in World War II-era London, and, once again, the Penvensie kids are summoned to Narnia. Only, this time, it's just Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) who get to cross over, as their elder sibs are in America for reasons that are barely explained. Luckily Penvensie's priggish cousin Eustace (Son of Rambow's Will Poulter) gets pulled along for the ride, arching his eyebrow and comically upstaging the less-than special effects. Magically deposited alongside the ship of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the Dawn Treader, the trio ends up on a mission to retrieve seven swords and defeat an evil ... um ... island. Or something like that. Most of the film is needlessly convoluted and an episodic bore, lacking urgency or energy. It isn't until the finale, a rousing sea serpent attack, that things pick up. Needless to say, it's too little too late.
The truth is Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes little sense and, if true to the book, demonstrates what a poor dramatist C.S. Lewis was. Characters come and go, the magic is random and disconnected from any internal storytelling logic, and the children never really earn their victories but rather have them handed to them. The swords are little more than narrative props and too easily found, and Jesus ... er ... I mean, Aslan helps Eustace break free of a magical curse that should've offered dramatic rewards. The cast doesn't make things better because it's filled with characters who are hard to care about.
Veteran filmmaker Michael Apted (known for his 7-Up documentaries) struggles to keep things moving, giving the movie a stiff, dated feel, like yesteryear's voyages of Sinbad. Oddly, this mannered approach helps your expectations stay low. Little ones — much like my 5-year-old — will probably be enchanted (with only the unexpectedly ferocious eel-like sea monster to later disturb their sleep), but anyone older than 10 is bound to be underwhelmed.
Behind Voyage of the Dawn Treader's blandlydisposable plotting are themes of vanity, greed, temptation and cowardice. They're good topics to explore in a kid's flick; unfortunately each is so quickly pushed aside by a special effect that they never have time to resonate with younger audiences. Instead, the film offers an interminable coda that pounds away at Lewis' heavy-handed religious metaphors. In the end, it's hard to tell whether Disney is paying homage to the author here or cynically securing an audience that's so desperate to have its faith validated that they'll accept a second-rate adaptation of his work.
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