“Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is either a spirited revival of the film franchise based on the C.S. Lewis children’s Narnia novels, or an entertaining and emotionally satisfying coda to “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
In the able care of veteran director Michael Apted, who has helmed films that won actors Oscars and been a steady hand on the tiller of many an action film, including a James Bond adventure, the series’ casting shortcomings and drifting storylines are less pronounced and we get an idea of how the whole of Lewis’ Christian allegory fantasy might have played out in better hands. If Apted and his ilk had made the films, they might have been a worthy challenger to the far more popular Harry Potter pictures.
A couple of years after “Prince Caspian,” the younger two Pevensie kids — Lucy (Gergie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) — are stuck in World War II Britain, riding out the Blitz with their insufferable cousin Eustace (the hilarious Will Poulter from “Son of Rambow”). But when Lucy notices that a painting in her room seems particularly “Narnian,” darned is the seas don’t pour off the frame and wash the three of them — the “What rubbish” spouting Eustace included — into the deep, where they’re rescued by Caspian (Ben Barnes) and crew on the good ship The Dawn Treader.
There are fresh threats to the kingdom, islands to be visited, slave traders to be fended off and a quest to be completed.
And true to the intent of the Christian apologist Lewis’ novels, there are lessons to be learned, many of them delivered by the chivalrous mouse, Reepicheep, voiced with a plummy verve by Simon Pegg.
“We have nothing, if not belief,” he lectures Eustace, who thinks they’re all “barking mad” over this island-hopping adventure.
The tests are about vanity, ego, faith and courage, and they figure in the sermons of the ghostly God-figure Aslan, the anatomically incorrect lion voiced by Liam Neeson. Sermons they are, but they go down much easier here than in special effects wizard and “Shrek” sequel director Andrew Adamson’s earlier inferior Narnia films.
The effects here don’t overwhelm the film, but the 3D is pointless and time and again, the producers’ tight-fistedness in spending money on actors shows through. Grizzled characters, including a Prospero-like wizard, come and go and leave no impression whatsoever. Hiring a few more recognizable and charismatic actors would have vastly improved this series from the start.
Nevertheless, Apted makes good use of those he has and gives this “Chronicle” an emotional resonance and lightness of touch that the films Disney made (Fox has taken over distribution of these Walden Media projects) lacked. There are more novels to be filmed, depending on whether this movie sinks or swims. And the finale here is so satisfying that revival or fond filmed farewell, the Dawn Treader makes port after a voyage well worth taking.
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, and the voices of Liam Neeson and Tilda Swinton
Director: Michael Apted
Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes
Rating: PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.