Adapted from the third book in CS Lewis’ landmark Narnia series, The Dawn Treader comes bearing the kind of unfortunate name that seems to pre-empt critics and audiences having their knives out. ‘Simply treading water’; ‘Fails to make a splash’ – the list goes on.
Unfortunately, those pithy phrases do hold – dare one suggest it – water. Although Dawn Treader is a commendable effort, it falls short of a masterpiece. Possessed of pacing issues from the start, it’s heavy on incident, but short on memorability, a step backwards from the critically acclaimed Prince Caspian towards the frothy forgetfulness of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (a film that unfairly, though inevitably, floundered in the wake of Lord of the Rings).
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Attempting to unpack the plot is a headache (although ironically the Christian allegory becomes ever more obvious). It also propels forward at too thunderous a pace – barely 10 minutes have gone by before the two Pevensie siblings remaining in England, Edmund and Lucy (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) are transported back into Narnia via a painting of a ship, which turns out to be the Dawn Treader itself.
Taken aboard by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes, oddly sans Italian accent) along with their nebbish cousin Eustace (the terrific Will Poulter, Son of Rambow), what follows is less a coherent narrative than a series of incidents involving temptations from green mist, an evil island, dragons, swords and of course the return of a certain noble, talking lion voiced by Liam Neeson.
Firmly rooted in the realm of shiny, happy fantasy, director Michael Apted, cinematographer Dante Spinotti and a clearly accomplished technical crew orchestrate a dazzling, resplendent return to Aslan’s land. David Arnold’s pleasingly robust, old-fashioned score is also a real coup, and an indicator of how these sorts of things are meant to be done (no synth-orchestral Pirates nonsense here). It’s just a shame that emotional realism is a bit thin on the ground. It looks spectacular – a ravishing world of high seas, confidently animated CGI sidekicks (Simon Pegg taking over as the voice of Reepicheep) and occasionally breath taking lighting textures – but it’s all a bit empty.
The young performers do their best, but the characters are devoid of interesting on-screen arcs (in spite of all the portentous allegory and metaphors, any interest is credited to Lewis’ prose itself rather than the filmmakers’ interpretation of them). Apted threatens to display his famous deftness with female characters in the form of Lucy’s struggle with her own self-image, but it’s a thematic cul-de-sac. Poulter comes off best, managing the clever trick of turning the anal Eustace from a cowardly brat into a real hero in the classic tradition. Largely though, human interest is subservient to spectacle, and a loud, crashing battle scene at the climax does little to change opinion.
That is until the film plays its trump card in the final 15 minutes, culminating in an enormously moving and engaging series of emotional crescendos that really tug at the heart-strings. As certain journeys end and others threaten to continue, for a few, tantalising scenes, the emotional beats make sense, the pathos comes through, and we come to perceive the characters as characters, and not just ciphers. It’s not enough to seal the film as a classic but it restores collective interest in a franchise still in its infancy, just when it threatened to sink into colourful, anonymous noise. If Narnia were to finish here, it’s a satisfying end; more than anything else in the film, however, it makes one yearn for the journey to continue.