April 2021

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2011)

DIRECTOR: Michael Apted


Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Will Poulter, Anna Popplewell, William Moseley, Gary Sweet, Billie Brown, Tilda Swinton


Liam Neeson, Simon Pegg


While it is adapted from C.S. Lewis’ beloved seven-book children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia has had a hard time attracting the same following on the screen as it has on the page. Part of the problem is that the Narnia series simply doesn’t lend itself to being particularly cinematic; another is that, far more than either The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, it is geared exclusively toward children and young adults, and the filmmakers’ attempts to make its appeal more broad are hit-and-miss. The critical and popular acclaim of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter mania enticed Disney into deciding it wanted its own fantasy franchise, and turned to probably the third most popular fantasy book series. Unfortunately for them, after the relatively successful reception of first outing The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the follow-up Prince Caspian was met with a disappointing lack of enthusiasm. Rethinking what it had gotten itself into, and worried (justifiably) that the lack of narrative focus in Voyage of the Dawn Treader would make it an even worse flop, Disney decided to cut its losses and sold the Narnia series to 20th Century Fox. Box office returns did not return Narnia to the relative glory of its first installment, but did manage to surpass Prince Caspian, and Fox deemed Narnia a still viable enough property to green-light filming of The Magician’s Nephew. Even so, the film reached only moderate success and was received with mixed reviews, and is unlikely to reignite excitement in those disappointed by Caspian. The lack of narrative drive Disney feared would be its Achilles’ Heel is exactly what’s wrong with this movie—it’s an unwieldly, rambling, meandering adventure that seldom seems to be going anywhere particularly purposefully and never builds up to enough pay-off to justify the tedium it takes to get there.

We begin, as we always do, in WWII-era Great Britain. Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) are studying abroad in the United States, leaving behind Edmond (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) at the home of cousins, where they must endure their obnoxious relative Eustace (Will Poulter). While gazing at a painting of a ship, they are abruptly sucked back into Narnia when the water in the painting comes to life and floods the entire room. Surfacing in the open ocean, the Pevensies and the unwilling Eustace are pulled aboard the Dawn Treader, ship of their old friend King Caspian (Ben Barnes), where they are also reunited with swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). Caspian is seeking several missing lords from his royal family, and along the way the band learns of a mysterious green mist that preys on its victims’ fears and temptations, sails to the Eastern Lands beyond the Lone Islands, and even draws near Aslan’s Country, which no mortal has seen.

In general, I would consider The Chronicles of Narnia the poor cousin of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I did not rate either the first or second film higher than slightly above mediocre, but Dawn Treader is inferior to both of them. Both The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian had a clear, if simplistic, narrative and at least some sense of direction. There were good guys and bad guys and battles, and a clear climax. Dawn Treader is a dull, meandering adventure that tests the viewer’s ability to stay focused on what’s transpiring onscreen. Even more so than its predecessors, it has a somewhat schizophrenic tone, with a sequence involving invisible creatures that feels like a Monty Python skit, and other sequences that are intended to induce pathos. Just as the filmmakers did with the first two films, they take various creative licenses here in an attempt to spice things up, and it’s telling that Dawn Treader’s most engaging sequence—a battle with a grotesque sea serpent that basically serves as the climax—is an cinematic embellishment. The special effects, while generally impressive, occasionally seem a step down from the first two as well; the sea serpent and the talking mouse Reepicheep are effective, but a dragon and some smaller effects occasionally look dodgy. As before, character development is no more than the most perfunctory basics. Edmond learns about leadership. Lucy learns to value herself instead of living in her (ostensibly) more attractive older sister’s shadow. Also as before, all this is conveyed in heavy-handed fashion, as is Lewis’ Christian underpinnings. While Aslan was never a subtle Christ representation (the sacrifice and resurrection in Book 1, anyone?), here the reference is spelled out for us in sledgehammer fashion. Also, while Movie 1 had a legitimate menace in the form of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, and Movie 2 had Sergio Castillito’s less frightening but still serviceable Lord Miraz, Dawn Treader has….green mist? It’s never properly explained what this is, besides vague muttering about ‘pure evil’ that plays on our heroes’ nightmares and insecurities, and once or twice takes the form of none other than Tilda Swinton (this and her cameo in Prince Caspian, both of which were additions for the movies that did not exist in the books, signify that the filmmakers are as aware as we are that they’ve already used up their best villain and probably their best actor).

The returning cast members are what we expect from them, and there are no standouts among the newcomers. Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley show perhaps a little more polish, and Ben Barnes reprises his role as Caspian with more scruff and less accent. Anna Popplewell and William Moseley have only cameos, and neither is missed. In fact, the only character who is intended to have a full character arc is Will Poulter’s Eustace, whose ever-complaining diary forms our narration, but Eustace is a one-dimensionally whiny brat whose redemption takes place entirely while he’s a CGI dragon, making it devoid of impact when the human boy finally returns to us. Liam Neeson’s regal tones return in a small role as Aslan, and the voice of Reepicheep has changed from Eddie Izzard to Simon Pegg, though many casual viewers probably won’t notice the difference. Tilda Swinton again has a fleeting cameo, and is again the most arresting presence in the movie.

Blandness and lack of ambition is the problem with all of the Narnia books, and these deficiencies extend to the movies despite the filmmakers’ attempts to address them. Due to its lack of narrative drive and a strong antagonist, these flaws seem magnified in Dawn Treader. The quest onscreen has dungeons and dragons and sea serpents and adventure on the high seas, but remains completely undistinguished and somewhat boring. The saying ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ may have some merit, but Dawn Treader fails to make either worth the investment of the viewer’s time and attention.


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