C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are, at their heart, children’s stories. Many readers have fond childhood memories of them, and even those who discovered them later in life may find that they appeal particularly to their inner child–no surprise, considering that Lewis wrote the first book particularly for his god-daughter, Lucy Barfield.
Subsequent attempts to translate Narnia into film, from the 1979 animation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the BBC’s four television serials of the early 90s to Walden Media’s recent offerings, have met with varying degrees of success. The latest installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, may not be the best cinematic adaptation of Narnia, but it pulls off that childlike sense of wonder and adventure that Prince Caspian failed to deliver.
As the story begins, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the younger Pevensie siblings, are staying with their irritating cousin Eustace, when they happen upon an unusual painting that transports the three of them back to Narnia. Plunged unceremoniously into the Narnian sea, they are quickly rescued by their old friend King Caspian and the crew of his ship, the Dawn Treader. Together, they explore uncharted waters in search of Narnia’s seven lost lords in order to combat a sinister and amorphous green mist; along the way, they encounter slave traders, alchemical pools, a retired star, invisible monopod dwarves, and a deadly sea serpent before finally reaching the edge of Aslan’s Country.
Much of the story focuses on Eustace’s growth from odious brat to repentant adventurer, and Will Poulter plays his role to the hilt. Precocious, petulant, self-centered, and entirely dismissive of anything imaginative as “children’s stories” and “nonsense,” Eustace’s logical approach to the fantastic otherland is engagingly obnoxious. Too much Eustace would be off-putting–and the film does border on too much Eustace–but thankfully he possesses a measure of wit, and excerpts from his diary add a sympathetic aspect and make it his story. (And let’s be honest: as scientific-minded, modern individuals, Eustace’s skeptical reaction to a world of magic and wonder would probably be our own.)
Eustace, when he succumbs to greed, finds himself transformed into a dragon to reflect his inward dragonishness, a form he is impotent to shed without the help of Aslan himself. Others must also face their inner demons–Edmund grapples with guilt over aiding the White Witch and a desire for power, Lucy contends with jealousy of older sister Susan and a desire for physical beauty, and King Caspian…well, has daddy issues. Not every facet of our heroes’ temptations is handled compellingly, but when Lucy caves and recites a spell to turn her into Susan (thereby erasing Lucy momentarily from all of existence), or when Edmund pulls his sword on Caspian over a pool that transforms anything into gold, such moments are genuinely chilling. Henley and Keynes are very much at home with their characters by now, and are just as capable of portraying their darker faults as the traits that make them so endearing.
It’s difficult to translate literature to film, and Dawn Treader‘s episodic nature and explorations of character do not easily lend themselves to contemporary movie sensibilities. In essence, the movie takes the key elements and events of the book and weaves them around a primary conflict with a mysterious and corrupting green mist. The movie is reasonably faithful to the source material, though perhaps not as faithful as it could have been. Most notably, the green mist is added as a central antagonist, and the characters describe it in the hyperbolic moral rhetoric of fantasy–a “great evil” that threatens Narnia as we know it. To successfully port Dawn Treader to the silver screen, it’s all but necessary to invent an antagonist, but the voyage turns into a “fetch quest” for the seven Narnian lords’ swords that would be more at home in a Legend of Zelda game. It’s hard to take this amorphous “pure evil” seriously, especially when it’s described with overblown gravity more fitting for Lord of the Rings than a fantastical seafaring picaresque.
At the end of the day, Dawn Treader is a solid and family-friendly adventure that will engage your inner child. Enter the theater ready for fantastic sights, strange lands, and just enough self-discovery to keep things interesting. Also, forego the 3D, which is used well and inobtrusively enough, but doesn’t really add an extra $3 worth to the experience. It may not be all that it could have been, but Dawn Treader delivers wonder and adventure that you’d be pressed to find anywhere else.