A film like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a testament to how running time and pacing are entirely different things. The first two chapters in the Narnia series each ran over 140 minutes long but never began to drag. You watched them and never even thought about looking at your watch, even though their running time approached two and a half hours. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t even reach the 120-minute mark, and yet it feels overlong.
At the end of Prince Caspian, it was made apparent that the two oldest Pevensie children would not be permitted back into Narnia. They had grown too old, apparently. As a result, the only two returning characters from the “real world” are Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skander Keynes). They, along with an annoying cousin named Eustace (Will Poulter), wind up in Narnia aboard the ship called the Dawn Treader, which is led by King Caspian (Ben Barnes), who has apparently lost his Spanish accent in the couple of years between films.
In the last two films, the children were sent to Narnia with a clear purpose. That’s missing this time around. They eventually find one for themselves, which involves collecting a series of McGuffins in order to defeat pure evil, which more often than not takes the form of fog. That lack of purpose is ever-present and often gives the film a feeling that it has little reason to exist, except that there are seven Chronicles of Narnia books and we’d only previously gotten through two of the film adaptations.
Actually, I think it’s worth noting that the main studio behind the earlier two films, Disney, bailed on this installment. Instead, 20th Century Fox picked up the reigns, and with it gave the production a reduced budget. If this didn’t come through in the film, this likely wouldn’t be pertinent information. However, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader looks noticeably worse, both in a cinematographic and special effects sense, than both of its predecessors. It looks cheap in comparison.
That isn’t to say that it looks bad, because its $140 million budget does allow for some impressive visuals. But we’ve been given such a high standard of quality in both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, meaning anything less feels like a step down. The director has also changed, which could also have something to do with the lesser quality. Both of the other Narnia films were directed by Andew Adamson; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been brought to us by Michael Apted, who might not have the same enthusiasm for the project.
Much of the film has the characters sailing from island to island, looking for the McGuffins, and learning shallow moral lessons along the way. This is also the first film in the series to feel overbearing in its religious undertones. You could easily ignore any Christian allegories in the earlier two films, especially if you’re not particularly familiar with the Bible. They work perfectly fine as fantasy action-adventures aimed at children. This time around, you’re not going to be able to do that.
I don’t really have a problem with that except to say that it probably could have been handled a little more subtly. The movies can say what they want and it would be a disservice to the novels for the films to remove part of their point. But it feels like a contradiction in tone to all of a sudden now explicitly tell the audience that, for example, Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) might be Jesus Christ, just in a form that children can better understand. That’s only an example, of course, and not exactly what happens in the film. Cough. Cough.
It doesn’t ultimately matter. I’m more concerned in the lack of depth to the story and characters. We’ve now spent three movies with Lucy and Edmund, but they’ve never been less interesting and complex than they are here. Lucy’s solely captivated with wanting to be as pretty as her older sister, Susan (Anna Popplewell). while Edmund … doesn’t really do a whole much, except prove that he’s still enchanted by a cameo from the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). And Eustace is so one-note in his whining you can’t even begin to feel sympathy for him when he is turned into a dragon (spoiler alert).
This time around, there isn’t even a constant barrage of action to hold our attention. There are a few good set pieces, like a climactic battle with a sea serpent and — I’m sure there was at least one more but it’s not coming to mind. The only thing I kept hoping to see more of was the swashbuckling mouse (Simon Pegg takes over voicing duty from Eddie Izzard), which speaks volumes of how dull the human characters are.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the worst of the first three Narnia adaptations. It’s dull, despite being a half-hour shorter than each of the other two installments, it’s shallow, and its overt take on the religious subtext of the books has finally become distracting; you can’t willfully ignore it this time around. The film has a few good elements but on the whole isn’t worth the time unless you’re someone who feels obligated to watch all the films in a series.