MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favorite of the Narnia books, so when Disney announced they were ditching the franchise after Prince Caspian, I was a bit miffed. I could do without the prequel, The Magician’s Nephew, being made into a film. I don’t care for Eustace Scrubb enough to be invested in The Silver Chair needing to be produced. And I could live without The Horse and His Boy, although I do like that one as a bit of a standalone story.

But if they were going to make The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian into films, I wanted to see what they’d do with Dawn Treader and The Last Battle, at least. Sheesh.

So I was glad when Fox picked up the storytelling ball Disney dropped and committed to making The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with Andrew Adamson, the director of the first two Narnia adaptations, stepping into producer shoes and handing over the reins to Michael Apted, an accomplished director with an interestingly diverse filmography to his credit. So how is this latest adaptation of the beloved Narnia series?

Dawn Treader doesn’t take place in Narnia, but aboard a Narnian ship with Caspian X (Ben Barnes) — the Prince Caspian of the previous story, who’s now King Caspian, at the helm. So we’re no longer in Narnia, but exploring the outlying islands, which opens up some interesting possibilities from a visual and production standpoint. Where The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian are both coming-of-age and good-versus-evil tales, Dawn Treader is more of a classic quest story.

King Caspian seeks to find seven lost lords who were banished by his evil Uncle Miraz (bad guy of Prince Caspian) and reunite their magical swords at Aslan’s table. So there’s adventure, sure, but it lacks the big, exciting battle sequences of the previous films, and it also lacks a single clear-cut villain standing in the way of our heroes, which means the tension in the film depends more on the stories and characters than on Action, Action, Action! (Not a bad thing in my book, but it certainly requires a different tone than the previous installments.)

Further, one of the central characters in this tale is the mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard in Prince Caspian, with Simon Pegg smoothly taking over voiceover duty this time around). Reepicheep’s a great character in the books, but it’s hard work for an actor to play second fiddle to an animal, and that goes double for an animated animal who’s added in after you’ve turned in your performance.

The story opens with what should be — and is — one of the most visually exciting scenes: The younger two of the Pevensie children, Lucy and Edmund, have been stuck staying with unpleasant relatives while big brother Peter studies for exams and big sister Susan flits around America with their parents. In addition to an aunt and uncle who really don’t want them there, Edmund and Lucy are dealing with their peevish, petulant, practical cousin Eustace Scrubb (played peevishly, petulantly and practically by Will Poulter), who’s almost more irritating and unlikable than Edmund was in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And that’s saying quite a lot, considering that Edmund, back the day, betrayed his siblings and all the good Narnians by allowing his pettiness and jealousy to propel him into the circle of the White Witch, that wickedest of evil literary witches.

Dawn Treader looks different from the previous two films, and Apted keeps a pretty tight rein on the characters. Visually, it looks about as spectacular as one could hope for a film adaptation of this tale: the Dawn Treader looks like a proper Narnian ship built in peacetime ought to look — spectacular, with impressive attention to details, colorful and majestic. (One quibble: the inside quarters seemed to me to be larger than the scale of the exterior of the ship might allow, even given that we’re seeing the quarters for royalty.) The oceans are by times blue and gently rolling or stormy and dark and scary, the fantastical creatures of Narnia brought to life with loving attention to detail.

The acting is fine all the way around, though perhaps not quite as impressive as the visuals, but the story to me seemed to drag in places and to feel, overall, less exciting than a read-through of the same basic story in the book. Of course, this is the perpetual issue with adaptations, that those who love the books will never be satisfied with their adapted brethren. I hear you on that, just as I hear the cries of “Just relax and enjoy it, it’s a movie for Pete’s sake!” And I’ll concede that perhaps that’s true that critics in particular can trend toward being overly critical of literary adaptations aimed at the kiddie crowd, with the notable exception of the Harry Potter films.

With the Harry Potter adaptations, though, I’ve found it easier to compartmentalize, keeping the books in one place and the films in the other. I pondered, after seeing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, why it is that the Harry Potter books have felt, as a whole, more satisfying and consistent than these Narnia adaptations.

I think a significant factor is that Warner Brothers has been committed to the Harry Potter series in a way that Disney just was not to Narnia; not that WB’s commitment wasn’t heightened by huge box office numbers and a sense of “Yippee, we hit the mother lode this time!” But with the Narnia films, even the first one out of the gate, it felt to me like Disney was hanging a sword of Damocles over the series’ head: Perform to our Harry Potter-box office expectations, or we won’t finish the job.

Another factor, for me at least, has been the casting. Nothing against the kids cast as the Pevensie siblings or any of the adults cast in other roles; it’s just that they’ve never felt to me like anyone in the Narnia series has owned their characters to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have owned Harry, Ron and Hermione.

That trio became those characters for the series’ fans,and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that since sometime around Prisoner of Azkaban, whenever I read a Harry Potter book, the characters as I see them in my head have morphed into the actors who’ve played the parts in the movie (although, apologies to Michael Gambon, who’s a fine actor, but Dumbledore will always look like Richard Harris in my mind).

But in my head, when I’m reading one of the Narnia books now, even after three adaptations, the characters in my head look pretty much as they always have to me, and very little like their movie avatars. Quick, without looking at IMDb, name the four actors who play the Pevensie siblings. Yeah, I couldn’t do it, either (for the record, they’re William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, Skander Keynes and Georgie Henley).

Another issue for me in comparing the Narnia and Potter adaptations is continuity in the development of the character arcs. Comparitively speaking, the characters in the Narnia films have always felt a bit flat and underdeveloped to me, and that’s not the sense I had of them over many readings of the books. Caspian was a stronger character to me in the last two films than either Peter or Edmund; even Reepicheep has a personality that stays with you after the credits role.

With the Harry Potter books, the character arcs not just for the lead trio, but for others as well – particularly Neville, Luna, Snape and Malfoy — are well-drawn, believable for what’s come before, and often interesting. Even Dobby the Elf has a discernible arc, and that arc helps the audience develop an emotional attachment to what becomes of a character. The Pevensie children in the Narnia films should have that arc too, but we only get it in bis and pieces.

This weakens the series overall, and I almost wish that Fox, when it picked up the franchise, had just scrapped the whole kit and caboodle and started fresh. This third installment in the Narnia series is a stronger film than the previous two, and it works as a standalone film, but there’s a pretty gaping continuity issue in bridging the second film to the third that weakens the flow of the whole.

Which on the whole, boils down to this for me: Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a pretty good film on its own, an improvement over the first two … but it may be too little, too late for this iteration of Narnia adaptations to have the lasting impact of Harry and the Hogwarts gang. And that’s a shame, because the books deserved better.

14 Responses to “Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”

  1. John says:

    I agree with you, Kim. You’re right on the nose in terms of character development and the casting of the three leads. All of that plays far too flat. And yes, it’s a shame. I really wanted to champion the Narnia films, but unfortunately I just haven’t been able to do it. They’re all simply mildly pleasant and distracting. There hasn’t been anything to grab hold of.

  2. Missy says:

    We saw Dawn Treader today and came home to page through the book at dinner. I have the actual book I read as a girl. It is so rich and multi-faceted. The movie was fine, but I don’t know how I would feel about it if I hadn’t loved the book first. Eustace’s transformation was too brief, and the end was as well. I kept looking for the parts I had read again and again and loved.

  3. Andrea says:

    I just got back from seeing this movie & I thought it was great! I, too have read the books as a child and although there were differences, I feel that they were necessary to make the movie transition smoothly and to do it in the time alotted. I think people are expecting too much & comparing the Narnia films to Harry POtter or Lord of the Rings is unfair & not the point of the books being made into movies. We need to enjoy them for what they are-film adaptations of books and they are doing a great job so far.

  4. Rachel says:

    Personally I don’t think the films can be blamed for the lack of character development. I never thought that the books were very strong in that department (especially compared to the characters in the HP books). For me the books always seemed to be much more about telling a “good Christian story” than getting me to care about any of the characters. Lucy was always sweet and always right (though people rarely believed her), Susan was always anal and a bit condescending, Peter was always brave and tried too hard to do the right thing… only Edmund seemed to really grow at all, since he started out as a total prat and became brave and noble later on, but even then I didn’t feel like I really got to KNOW him.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling, but I just wish Lewis had done a better job with character development, and given the movie-makers more to work with. :/

  5. lu-e says:

    personally Lucy has been very consistent throughout and the actress “owns” her part.

    do i know the actress’ name? no. but i dont know the Potter actors’ names either.

    many great moments in this 3rd flick. also each movie has had coming of age moments. I love al the HP movies but if i wanted to be cynical i could say the kid has been a worry-wart from day one and not changed much.

    whereas Lucy was a child and know she is an adolescent but always with a sense of wonder & innocence. personally in HP the only character i have felt has been nailed in Hermione. The character and the actress have been perfect.

  6. myrna says:

    My husband and I went to see the Voyage yesterday at a matinee. We are in our 50’s and loved the books as young people and read them to our kids twice as they grew up. We didn’t see the movie because it was only in 3D and that makes us dizzy! No option to just see the movie. The price was also twice as much as normal because of the 3D and so being old and patient we will wait till it comes out in DVD. I am curious about the marketing of movies like this and the narrowness of 3D generally. I know young people who can’t tolerate 3D as well. Just a thought.

  7. mike says:

    Wow! I loved the movie! In our society it has come to the point that we can’t enjoy a literary adaptation unless it screams to our ADD world. Sit back and enjoy some intelligence. I dislike the Harry Potter stories as pure rubbish, lacking in any true meaning except for a warlock being good? This was great, all the way round.

  8. Jeff says:

    We just saw the movie last night. I usually have the book read before the movie, but not in this case, so I was free from having to judge it against a higher standard. The I enjoyed the movie, but I couldn’t help seeing how the C.S. Lewis’ tale in the book must have been larger than the movie could deliver. The movie had (right and wrong, and no in between) morals, which one rarely sees from Hollywood these days. The Christian references appealed to me because I am Christian, so I am biased. It was a very good children’s movie for the little kid in all of us.

  9. chris says:

    “Wow! I loved the movie! In our society it has come to the point that we can’t enjoy a literary adaptation unless it screams to our ADD world.”

    This comment makes no sense. What does ADD have to do with the Narnia movies? If anything, Dawn Treader does speak to “our ADD world” because of it’s episodic nature. There is no long build up or overall arc of a story, it just jumps from small story to small story. I tried to “sit back and enjoy some intelligence” when I saw this, and I was bored cause there was no intelligence. Can you explain what was so profound and intelligent about this pretty basic and mediocre movie?

    “We need to enjoy them for what they are-film adaptations of books and they are doing a great job so far.”

    Also a pretty ill-conceived comment. Just because it is an adaptation doesn’t mean we have to give it some sort of leeway. A movie is a movie is a movie, regardless of the source, and if it doesn’t work on it’s own, then it doesn’t work. Likewise, comparing the movie to its source material is a good way to figure out what went wrong in the adapting process.

    Nice review, Kim. Well thought out and reasoned, unlike what is brought to the table by the world of anonymous internet commentators.

  10. Kim Voynar says:

    “Sit back and enjoy some intelligence. I dislike the Harry Potter stories as pure rubbish, lacking in any true meaning except for a warlock being good? This was great, all the way round.”

    Mike, have you actually read the Harry Potter books? Because your comments smacks of a Christian who takes issue with what he thinks the stories are about, but who hasn’t actually read them. I ask this primarily because you use the word “warlock,” which, if you’d actually read the books, you’d know is never used. But that is a term I’ve seen used a lot by the anti-Potter Christian set.

    Further, your comment that the Potter books are lacking any meaning indicates to me also that you’ve not read them. Rowling took seven books to develop a very classic (in a literary sense) tale that blends the coming-of-age of Harry, and the years it takes him to learn his destiny in battling the ultimate evil represented by Voldemort (I’ll avoid spoiling here for those who haven’t read the last book), and him coming to accept what he has to do.

    It’s a real shame, to me, how a certain segment of Christian churches has rejected these books because they’re about wizards without looking deeper to see the very excellently drawn battle of good vs evil that the stories are really about.

  11. Kim Voynar says:

    rachel,

    I don’t entirely disagree with your comments re Lewis under-developing the characters, but I do think there’s more there to work from than the standard Disney set with the first two. An adaptation can actually improve upon its source material, and they could have fleshed out the characters even more than Lewis did, with some work.

  12. Aileen says:

    I watched the movie and enjoyed it. I have to admit though that the first time I’ve seen it, I felt like the whole book was crammed up to fit into the movie time. But when I watched it again- yes, I saw it more than once- I thought it was excellent. The book was my favorite among the Narnia series and I was not disappointed. I have to agree with Kim that while Warner was committed to the Potter movies, that seemed to be not the case with Disney, which was really sad and bad for the franchise. I am still looking forward to seeing the remaining books turned to movies. The Chronicles of Narnia is worth seen on the screen. :-) Thanks for a very interesting review.

  13. Emma says:

    The film was okay, though I much preferred the first film. Just one thing though, why had Caspian’s accent changed from Spanish/Italian to upper crust English?!!!!!

  14. Klyde says:

    Honestly, I wish people had better things to do than go around trashing movies that they don’t like. I thought The Dawn Treader was pretty good, and I’m anticipating the other four movies. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed at how different it was from the book, and I don’t think those changes were neccesary.
    But, come on, people. I’m not exactly a Harry Potter fan, but I’m not about to go and trash it because I know that people have different interests and Harry Potter just isn’t one of mine.
    By the way, I agree that Disney shouldn’t have backed out but that doesn’t make much of a difference to me.

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