The dragon, the ship, and a great fun trip
Image: Twentieth Century Fox
That we have managed to reach a third instalment in the Narnia cinematic saga is impressive. CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were always gentle, cosy novels (apart from The Last Battle, which is just rather confusing), and surely never intended to go head to head with more bombastic fare such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series. Their right and proper place for adaptation was definitely the late 80s/early 90s BBC series, full of men in giant beaver suits and sweet animation, shimmering with Christmas-y magic. On the big screen, they have always seemed a little lost, despite being made with love and due reverence to the source material. The likelihood of Dawn Treader being made seemed particularly distant when the earnings from the previous film, Prince Caspian, amounted to far less than that taken by The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Production company Disney backed out, and the film spent a while in limbo before Fox stepped up and took over. So, after all this time, was it worth the wait? Well…I rather think it was.
This time around we follow the two younger Pevensie children, along with their annoying cousin, as they’re pulled through a painting back into the land of Narnia, where their old pal Caspian is involved in a quest to find seven lost lords. The most conventionally plotted of the Narnia septet, Dawn Treader translates into fully rounded family entertainment. Young children will be happy with the talking animals, especially Reepicheep the mouse (voiced by Simon Pegg, ably taking over from Eddie Izzard), older kids will love the sword fighting and even adults should be kept amused, whether in groaning at the sledgehammer religious allegories or smiling at the increased humour content.
With Susan and Peter gone, younger siblings Lucy and Edmund get the limelight. Both have their demons to face, with Lucy’s desire to be beautiful cleverly embodied in the form of her older sister, and Edmund’s feelings of inadequacy played upon by a manifestation of the White Witch (additions to the original novel which cleverly enable the filmmakers to bring back both the elder Pevensie children and Tilda Swinton for cameos). While neither Skandar Keynes (as Edmund) nor Georgie Henley (Lucy) have developed much in terms of acting chops over the three films, they have something about them which is irresistibly watchable, making it far easier to overlook their weaknesses than for, say, the terrible Harry Potter kids. The constantly underrated Ben Barnes puts in another good performance as King Caspian X, ably portraying the young monarch with the burden of history on his shoulders.
The most memorable performance in the piece, however, comes from Will Poulter as the Pevensies’ obnoxious cousin, Eustace Scrubb, who is drawn into the adventure against his will, and spends much of the film bitching about what’s happening to him. The rapport he develops with Reepicheep is amusing and touching in equal measure, and top marks to the animators for capturing Poulter’s withering expressions in the CGI dragon into which he is turned when his avarice gets him into magical hot water. I’m already looking forward to seeing him return in The Silver Chair, should the box office business on this one encourage them to continue the series.
On the downside, a problem issuing from the novel itself, the story is rather too formulaic. While Caspian was criticised for its lack of action and deus ex machina conclusion, I appreciated the dark politics which fuelled the story. None of that really carries over into this instalment, with the end of the previous film’s great battles being dealt with in two or three throwaway lines. Other flaws include the filmmaker’s attempt at introducing another cute kid into the mix – which falls flat on its face as she is given nothing to do which might make us give two hoots about her – and the fact that the best fight scenes (the heroes versus a bunch of nasty slave traders, or Caspian and Edmund) are cut short in favour of focussing on long CGI ones which aren’t half as enjoyable to watch (the Dawn Treader against a big imaginary sea serpent).
Small niggles aside, and bearing in mind that it’s a film for kids, this is one voyage well worth treading.