Is it possible that the makers of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have made the best film in the Narnia series to date while doing the least justice to the book? I think it is. Perhaps it’s even because the main themes of the film have so little to do with the book 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.
Will Poulter, who played the bullying schoolboy in Son of Rambow, is entertainingly rotten as the bullying Eustace, who clearly has personality problems. 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.
So many trees. What of the forest? Here is a simple question: Why is the ship, and the film, called the Dawn Treader? What does dawn have to do with the story? I doubt one viewer in 50 could answer that question based on the film, yet it wouldn’t be going too far to say that this is what the book, in some sense, is about. The ship’s destination is not simply the world’s end, but the eastern edge of the world, the source of the sunrise. The sun is practically a character in the book: As they sail eastward, it grows larger and brighter until it is two or three times its original size.
Alas, none of this is in the film. Other than a brief exchange and a glimpse of a map or two, the Dawn Treader might as well be sailing due south or north by northwest. Not one shot depicts the ship sailing toward the dawn or with the setting sun at its bow. In fact, frequent shots show the sun well to one side, often off the starboard bow. If I’m not mistaken, as they approach the Lone Islands at dusk, we see them sailing into the sunset, i.e., due west.
I can imagine a Lewis non-fan mistaking this for the nitpicking of a purist fan who would object to any departure at all. Not so. I have no problem with revisionism and reimagining. I’m just pointing out that leaving the sun out of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader isn’t entirely unlike leaving Beatrice out of The Divine Comedy. The destination may be the same, but without that guiding light, it’s nothing like the same journey.
That’s one major oversight. I could list others, but this review would quickly become a chapter or even a book. (See DecentFilms.com for a more detailed comparison/contrast.)How well does the film stand on its own? What’s left for a Dawn Treader that no longer treads toward the dawn? The answer, it seems, is a decent fantasy family film with colorful effects and action, moral themes mixed with Hollywood self-esteem, and 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 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?
An incident in which Lucy is tempted to read a spell that will make her beautiful becomes something larger and rather interesting. Picking up on a subtle hint in Lewis, the film makes Lucy wistfully envious of her older sister Susan’s beauty. Aslan’s scolding is partly insightful, partly tinged 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.
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 fish breakfast on the beach, he does get the vital line about having another name in our world and the children needing to learn to know him by that name.
Despite rather mangling 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.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com. He blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Fantasy violence and menace; some scary images. Might be too much for sensitive kids.