I finally got around to seeing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader last weekend, and as hard as it is for me to type this, I probably would've been better off waiting to see it as a rental. That is so hard for me to say as I'm a huge Narnia fan, and despite changes made to the book storylines for the first two films, I felt that the filmmakers remained wholly faithful to the spirit of C. S. Lewis's stories. Sadly I do not feel that is the case with Dawn Treader. I have to wonder if the change in production partners (from Disney to Fox), and at one point, if memory serves me correctly, the questionable status of getting a third film made at all, resulted in such a change in tone and a great loss of focus on the wonderful source material available for this movie. In so many respects this is the first Narnia film where I've felt the storyline was unaccountably "dumbed down," and that just breaks my heart. But the movie isn't an entirely lost cause, so I'll try to balance my frustrations out with some comments on what did work. :)
First of all, I don't understand why the filmmakers insist on keeping the framing device of World War II as the real-world backdrop in this film series. It has been five years since the first Narnia film, and Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) have very obviously aged more than one year between each of their Narnian adventures. Thus IMO the need for the framing device feels more than a little forced. That said, I am a huge fan of Henley and Keynes as the two younger Pevensie children - they have each really grown into their respective roles and they will forever be Lucy and Edmund in my mind. This story introduces their odious cousin, the aptly named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, brought to life wonderfully by Will Poulter. His casting was just perfect - he did a fantastic job bringing Eustace in all of his annoying glory to life, and he's the main reason, despite my reservations about this film as a whole, that I hope we get to see The Silver Chair on the big screen, since that story brings Eustace front-and-center. I absolutely loved Poulter's interactions with Reepicheep, and his transformation from dragon back to boy brought tears to my eyes.
Of course I was thrilled to see Ben Barnes as Caspian again - he is just gorgeous. :) And story-wise, he's finally more the appropriate age for the Narnian monarch. The Dawn Treader is beautifully realized on screen, but I have some problems with the way the filmmakers brought the mission to life. First of all, why on earth was it necessary to change the mission from Caspian fulfilling a coronation promise to find his father's seven lost friends, instead turning it into some sort of rescue mission because now the lords fled Narnia and Caspian's evil uncle years earlier, and never returned. I can only think that the filmmakers couldn't visualize an more episodic adventure story like the Dawn Treader novel translating well to screen - but I have to believe that a more faithful adaptation of the book wouldn't have resulted in such a dumbed-down mess.
Instead of making this a film about the journey and the characters, a completely unnecessary subplot is inserted that transforms the voyage into a quest to "save the world" from evil green mist. Yes, you read that right - evil green mist, that - WAIT FOR IT - kidnaps people. That has to be one of the silliest plot devices I've ever come across in a film, and that's putting it mildly. *sigh* So, instead of searching for seven intrepid lords sent to explore unknown lands, Caspian and company are searching for seven lords who got the heck out of Dodge in fear of their lives. They just happened to each possess an ancient, magical sword, and if those seven swords are "reunited" at Aslan's table, the green fog will be vanquished forever! This entire reworked aspect of the storyline felt so forced and unnecessary and if I'm being completely honest made me mad. Wasn't the adventures in the book enough? Generally I am pretty open-minded about changes made in book-to-film adaptations, if the change serves the story well and results in a better film. Here this is sadly not the case as so many of the unaccountable alterations diminished the story's impact in my view.
But it's not all bad. There are some gorgeous visuals to be had - in particular I'm reminded of the snow scene where Lucy reads from Coriakin's book of spells. That library was a dream come true for this book lover. :) And I think many women can relate to Lucy's struggles to accept who she is, instead of longing to be more like the "beautiful" older sister Susan. I also really liked the way the film explored the friendship between Edmund and Caspian. Poor Edmund has always had to deal with playing "second fiddle" to his older brother, and without Peter looking over his shoulder on this journey to Narnia he's over-eager to prove himself to be just as worthy a Narnian king. The filmmakers made a special point of highlighting just how important all of the Pevensie children are to Caspian - more than friends they are family - and the way that plays out over the course of this film was nicely done. I also really loved the relationship between Eustace and Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). In keeping with the novel, Eustace is an absolute beast towards Reepicheep, and the two have a lot of "issues" to work through before they are able to reach a mutual truce. In this film it felt like Reepicheep liked Eustace, or perhaps a better way to describe it would be to say was amused by Eustace much earlier than is the case in with their friendship in the novel. I really feel like Eustace and Reep had a great rapport throughout this film, a pretty good achievement for the young actor Poulter to have such good buddy chemistry with a CGI mouse all things considered. :)
Back to a major problem with the film again, since I've brought up Reepicheep. I hate how the filmmakers minimized Reepicheep's quest to sail all the way to Aslan's country. The script makes it seem as though Reepicheep has no idea what the prophetic rhyme spoken over him at his birth means, and he sort of accidentally "falls" into the idea of leaving the Dawn Treader and journeying to Aslan's land. It was in my view a completely unnecessary alteration to the storyline and it really cheapened Reepicheep's presence in this film. In many respects one could argue that his passion to journey to Aslan's land is the heart and soul of the book, and taking away from that felt so unnecessary it just ticked me off.
The last twenty minutes of this movie saved it for me (actually brought me to tears). The conclusion of this movie encapsulated everything I wanted this movie to be, and left me feeling the way I wanted to feel about the entire film. I'm so, so happy they kept Aslan's (voiced by Liam Neeson) final words to Lucy and Edmund intact (knowing him by "another name" in their world). And it was a poignant ending chapter to Lucy and Edmund's time in Narnia. Whether or not a fourth film is ever made, the last few minutes of Dawn Treader ends in such a way that it feels like a fitting closing chapter to the adventures of two of my favorite characters from Lewis's beloved series (at least until The Last Battle, and I can't even begin to think about how Hollywood might screw that book up, so I just won't go there).
Director Michael Apted keeps the action flowing at a brisk pace - I just wish that he & the actors had a better script to work with that didn't resort to such cartoonish plot devices like killer smoke. I'm also a pretty big fan of composer David Arnold's work - the man has worked on everything from James Bond films to BBC's Sherlock, so he has a great track record. The score is lovely, and Arnold includes a few flourishes reminscent of Harry Gregson-William's work for the first two Narnia films that nicely ties the series together musically.
I feel like this is rather a departure from my normal type of movie review. But I'm so ambivalent about this movie that it's hard for me to really muster the enthusiasm I can normally find to really dissect it scene by scene. *wink* Will I be adding it to my DVD collection? Definitely, it's worth that based on the conclusion alone. Plus, I'm a series completist. :) And perhaps upon further viewings my opinion of it will mellow a bit, allowing me to appreciate - well, let's not overreach here - tolerate it as an entertaining, if somewhat generic, fantasy film. I just desperately hope that if The Silver Chair moves from "in production" to "production," that the end product doesn't emerge as a mangled version of the story I love so well. Take a lesson from the last, brilliant twenty minutes of Dawn Treader and give Narnia fans a film version of Silver Chair that keeps the heart and soul of the story intact.