Is it possible that the makers of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have made the best film in the series to date while charting a course even further from the book? I think it is. Perhaps it’s even because the film diverges from the book to the extent that it does that I’m able to regard the film more for what it is than for what it isn’t.
Not that incoming director Michael Apted (replacing Andrew Adamson) and his screenwriters have jettisoned the book. There is still a magical painting that transports Edmund, Lucy and their record stinker cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, into the Narnian world. There is still a ship called the Dawn Treader commanded by their friend King Caspian of Narnia, who sails in search of seven missing Narnian lords. The voyage still takes the friends to magical islands where they encounter dragon treasure, invisible Dufflepuds, deadly enchanted pools, mystical feasts and more. Their journey still takes them to the world’s end, to the threshold of Aslan’s country.
Thus far the trees — what of the forest? Take the ship’s name, the Dawn Treader: an allusion to its ultimate destination — the utter east, the source of the rising sun, which looms ever larger in the sky until it become blinding. Sun, dawn, east: None of this figures in the film, which depicts the journey to the world’s edge without one shot of the ship sailing toward the dawn or with the setting sun at its bow. Frequent shots show the sun well to one side, often off the starboard bow.
That’s one major oversight. I could list others, but this review would quickly become a chapter or even a book (detailed comparison/contrast to come). How does the film stand on its own? Well enough. It’s not the radical departure from the earlier films that fans may have hoped for, but it’s a decent fantasy family film with colorful effects and action, moral themes mixed with Hollywood self-esteem, and sometimes-vague faith with a touch of Providence and grace.
In place of Lewis’ episodic, Odyssey-like voyage, the filmmakers have crafted an urgent mission of encroaching doom: Dark Island, a realm of quiet psychological dread in Lewis, has been transformed into an ominous locus of evil that threatens to devour the Narnian world. The quest for the seven lords is compounded by a search for seven magical swords given by Aslan, which hold the key to defeating the evil of Dark Island.
The characters are more enjoyable this time around, with the bickering and angst of earlier films largely left behind. Well, there’s still bickering with Eustace, but there’s supposed to be. Will Poulter, who played the bullying schoolboy in Son of Rambow, is entertainingly rotten as the bullying Eustace, who clearly has personality problems. Many child actors play jerks like they know they’re supposed to be jerks, but Poulter plays the role with gusto, and convinces you that he believes he’s in the right.
Reepicheep, voiced by Star Trek’s Simon Pegg (replacing Eddie Izzard) is a major improvement over his Prince Caspian incarnation; though still not quite Lewis’ gallant, he’s credibly Errol Flynn-like, and less, well, Eddie Izzard-like. I like what the movie does with the scene in which Reep challenges Eustace to a duel: It’s not what Lewis wrote, but it’s good characterization; it’s cinematic; it’s funny — and it ends on a gratifyingly humane note. Reep’s final speech to Aslan on the sands at the world’s end, and his final act with his ever-present sword, both strike exactly the right note.
Peter and Susan, being too old for Narnia, are formally absent, but their presence lingers insofar as their younger siblings remain in their shadows. Edmund chafes somewhat at his youth and junior status to Peter, though not in a way that becomes annoying. Lucy, in an interesting extension of a subtle hint in Lewis, is wistfully envious of her older sister Susan’s beauty.
Aslan’s scolding of Lucy mixes insight with the gospel of self-esteem: Lucy “doubts her value,” Aslan says. Likewise, while I’m glad that the movie retains Reep comforting the newly transformed Eustace, the film isn’t as clear as it could be that Eustace’s transformation reflects his true condition; Reep even suggests, “Extraordinary things only happen to extraordinary people.” D’oh.
The vague faith of earlier films crops up here: When Lucy asks Reep if he really believes Aslan’s country exists, the mouse replies, “We have nothing if not belief,” which is not a reason for believing one thing rather than another. On the other hand, when Lucy, reassuring a young girl that her missing mother will be found, says, “You have to have faith about these things,” she adds, “Aslan will help us,” thereby grounding faith in a Person. The girl’s reply is intriguing: Aslan didn’t stop her mother from being taken in the first place. It’s a first step in theodicy, the problem of evil: Why do bad things happen if God could stop them?
Two key elements from the book make it into the film: Eustace’s transformation back into a boy, though disappointingly stripped of its visceral and baptismal force, is nevertheless Aslan’s gift to Eustace, something he couldn’t accomplish on his own. And while Aslan is deprived of his appearance as a Lamb and there is no Johannine fish breakfast on the beach, Aslan does get his vital line about having another name in our world and the children needing to learn to know him by that name.
Despite riding rather roughshod on Lewis’ tale, the movie Dawn Treader is a pleasant outing that I think I might be quicker to watch again than either of the previous entries. My Prince Caspian DVD sits on my shelf unwatched since we got it. That can’t be good. There are scenes from Prince Caspian I’d like to see again, such as the aerial assault on Miraz’s castle, but the prospect of slogging through Peter and Caspian’s bickering makes me tired just thinking about it. The movie Dawn Treader doesn’t make me tired. It just makes me want to read the book aloud to my kids yet again.
Content advisory: Fantasy violence and menace; some scary images. Might be too much for sensitive kids.