10 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Will Poulter, right, and Reepicheep the warrior mouse are shown in a scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."
Loads of cash are being poured into it, but "The Chronicles of Narnia" just can't seem to find its footing on the big screen.

The first installment, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005), was a certifiable hit, grossing $291.7 million at the domestic box office and $745 million worldwide even though it was not a particularly good film, struggling to find a balance between its fairy tale atmosphere and heavy-handed Christian symbolism.

Part two, the darker, grittier "Prince Caspian" (2008), was more war movie than fairy tale and the best fantasy film of the decade without hobbits or Harry Potter. Yet audiences weren't particularly interested; its domestic box office take was less than half that of its predecessor, causing Disney to back out as the distributor of future installments. (20th Century Fox stepped up in its place.)

That brings us to "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," its budget slashed to a reported $140 million from "Prince Caspian's" $225 million. Based on the third of C.S. Lewis's beloved seven-part series, it is a movie hindered by a story that simply is not cinematic enough to sustain its 115-minute running time.

We pick up the action in England at an undefined point after the four Pevensie children have returned from their second trip to Narnia. The elder siblings, Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), are visiting America (and remain mostly off-screen), while Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are forced to stay at the home of their wretched cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter). Very quickly, the three are transported, via a painting, to Narnia, where they end up onboard the Dawn Treader, the royal ship of King Caspian (Ben Barnes).

From there, it's a quest to find the seven lords who Caspian's uncle Miraz banished years ago when he seized the throne.

An effects-heavy fantasy movie generally is not a showcase for actors, and this is no exception. I did, however, enjoy Simon Pegg (replacing Eddie Izzard) as the voice of the warrior mouse Reepicheep. I also wanted to throttle Poulter as the insufferable Eustace, so I suppose that goes down as a win for the actor.

Michael Apted ("The World Is Not Enough") takes over from Andrew Adamson, director of the first two films, and returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are joined by Michael Petroni. They work hard to beef up the plot and create a sustainable story, reordering some of the events and adding some business about a green mist that captures boatloads of unfortunate Narnians and whisks them away to the foreboding Dark Island.

Some changes are beneficial. The story of Eustace, for example, resolved fairly quickly in the book, is allowed to play out over the course of the entire film, lending it significantly more weight.

While there are clashing swords and a battle with a ferocious sea serpent, the action is downplayed in favor of religious overtones reminiscent of those in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"—no doubt an effort to win back the faith-based audience that made the first movie a hit, then helped make the second a disappointment by staying away.

The movie's chief problem, though, lies not with its tone but its largely episodic structure. Lacking a strong central narrative force, there is little sense of what is at stake. "Dawn Treader" is not entirely unenjoyable, but it's missing the energy and urgency that elevated "Prince Caspian."

Greg's Grade: C

(Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action. 115 minutes.)

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