‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ Steers Off-Course

My disappointment with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader may have been imminent for a number of reasons. First of all, my expectations were probably set too high due to how impressed I was with the first two films in the series. I was pleasantly surprised by the filmmakers’ ability to simply tell the stories of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian the way C.S. Lewis had set them down in print. The allegorical themes in each book stayed commendably intact in the adaptations without feeling forced or preachy.

Secondly, Dawn Treader is easily one of my favorite books of the Narnia series, so not only do I hold special affection for this particular chronicle; I also know it much better than most of the other books. Combining my glowing opinion of the first two films with my love for the Dawn Treader story, my built-up expectations for this latest installment in the Narnia film series no doubt set me on a course headed for disenchantment.

It’s not that the film is bad. Dawn Treader is a high-seas adventure in an enchanted world full of sea monsters, mermaids, dragons, wizards, princes, and swashbuckling mice. With a formula like that, it’s kind of hard to go wrong in respect to entertainment value.

The special effects were dazzling. In the books, the children are transported in and out of Narnia by different means each time they visit, and it’s fun to see the filmmakers play with this concept. While the magic wardrobe is easy to translate to film, a nautical painting that somehow sucks Lucy, Edmund, and their grumpy cousin Eustace into Narnia is a little trickier to portray. The film nailed it; I loved watching sea water spill out of the front of a painting as the children lifted it off of Lucy’s bedroom wall; it definitely gives you that delightful “How’d they do that?” sensation that special effects should have. Of course, that was just the beginning; Dawn Treader’s special effects team also figured out how to get a tribe of invisible Dufflepuds to kidnap Lucy and how to turn Eustace into a dragon, among several other rather daunting tasks demanded by the story.

Another highlight of the film for me was actor Will Poulter, who played the cantankerous Eustace, the first person since the Pevensie siblings to be transported into Narnia from the outside, and the great fun of it is that he is absolutely there against his will. He reminded me of a child version of An Idiot Abroad’s Karl Pilkington, forced into a magical world full of talking animals. It was perfect.

Where the movie started to lose me was at the introduction of a green mist as a recurring image throughout the film. This seemed to be the filmmakers’ effort to tie in the story’s theme of temptation at every possible point. As an audience member, I felt like my intelligence had been insulted a little. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian adaptations, the allegories or morals within the stories were always clear; they didn’t need some drummed-up, dumbed-down symbol to point them out. I also got annoyed by the reappearance of the White Witch. I mean, sure, she’s meant to be the symbol of ultimate evil, but I got to the point where I was just sick of her showing up to seduce Edmund.

Now, I know that members of the library-card carrying set often do a lot of whining about book-to-film adaptations, especially in the last decade as Hollywood has been adapting entire book series like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Twilight to film. But as a library card carrier, I must say that normally I’m not too upset when Hollywood folks stray a bit from their source material or do a lot of condensing to fit everything into a two-hour movie.

Well, this time I was a little upset.

I realize that in the case of the Dawn Treader adaptation, I may be overly sensitive to the changes made for the film because I am so affectionate of the original story. However, it’s disappointing to be anticipating your favorite moments of a beloved book brought to life on film only to see them changed so much that you almost don’t recognize them.

Especially disappointing was when about half the book is squashed into the climactic sequence of the film: the spirit-crushing Island of Dreams is replaced by the scenery-chewing green mist, the sea monster attacks the boat, the White Witch shows up to tempt Edmund (yawn), and Eustace—still a dragon!—swoops in out of nowhere to battle evil with the rest of the Narnian crew. It was like someone panicked because the film was running long and said, “Quick! Throw everything we skipped into this scene!” Jumbling all of these story parts together made the film’s climax feel clunky.

Dawn Treader’s failure to stand up to the first two films of the series may have something to do with the franchise’s changing hands from Disney to 20th Century Fox, although many of the writing and producing credits seem to have stayed the same. Despite differences between this film and the others in the Narnia series, I am happy that Dawn Treader remained true to the story’s beloved characters, from the younger Pevensies visiting Narnia for the last time as children, to noble Reepicheep and dreamy Caspian (whose accent has curiously changed since the last film), to the aforementioned cranky Eustace.

Special features on the DVD include a handful of deleted scenes as well as feature-length commentary by director Michael Apted (new to the Narnia series) and producer Mark Johnson. The commentary is a little helpful for viewers like me who are up in arms about the changes made to the story; a couple of useful notes from the commentary include Apted’s and Johnson’s explanation for Caspian’s accent change, as well as their reasoning for introducing the green mist into the film. If you’re like me, you won’t feel much better about the choices made, but at least you’ll know the reasons behind them; Apted and Johnson kick off the commentary by saying they wanted to give Narnia audiences something different than the last two films. And for better or worse, I would say they succeeded.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a solid bet for swashbuckling action, stunning special effects, charming characters, and a family-friendly (though overstated) message. Narnia book lovers like me may pout about an almost unrecognizable adaptation from the original plot, but a new generation of Narnia fans will most likely find the film entirely enchanting.

RATING 4 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.