Rating: 2.5 of 5
Dawn Treader is heavy handed, simplistic and weakly written, beautiful but not really interesting. But before I begin my review, I feel like I need to set the context.
I’ve loved the Chronicles of Narnia for as long as I can remember. Different books have been my favorite at different times, but Voyage of the Dawn Treader has often held the favorite spot – for Eustace transformation from a dragon and the end when Aslan bids farewell to Lucy and Edmund.
so the movie has that to live up to.
Prince Caspian is the best adaptation of a book to a movie I’ve ever seen. and a nearly flawless film. It’s unlikely a sequel will also be that good. but I also can’t help that the standard has been set.
So, no matter how good Dawn Treader is, it’s not as great as it ought to be.
To be fair, I imagine this was one of the more difficult books to adapt. The book is mostly a collection of different small adventures on each island with various threads connecting them; a whole different problem than the timeline issues in Prince Caspian. Which means things were going to have to change from the book in order to make it a great film. I’m ok with that. The things they changed in Caspian made it a brilliant film, so it’s possible. I just don’t think they did it very well, so I offer Things They Should Have Done Better:
1 – Pick a stronger throughline
Obviously, since the book is so segmented they needed to create or manipulate a solid throughline for the story to carry them from one island to the next. Taking the mist that they sail into toward the end of the book and drawing it back through to the Lone Islands and making it “evil” was just weak. and not compelling. nor were the seven swords that had to be placed on Aslan’s table.
2 – Make the characters more interesting
One of the things that made Prince Caspian such a rich film was that they explored the struggles of the characters: Peter wrestling with having been a king then having to live in a world where he’s a boy again, which drives him to reckless choices to prove his strength but his pride and need to prove himself have awful costs. And Caspian striving to grow up to be a king and then the conflict of these men testing their strength and authority against one another.
It’s lame to give Edmund the same struggle of having been a king in a boy’s body. Plausible, but we’ve been there before so they needed to find something else driving Edmund. And also not even the most dynamic aspect of Edmund’s character – Edmund who was a traitor, Edmund who found his courage and became fiercely brave in defiance of his treachery, Edmund who was not tempted by power because he knew the cost of making the wrong alliance.
Now he’s been abandoned by his family, saddled with his obnoxious and petty cousin, must protect his sister because no one else is around with them, is on the verge of becoming a man without anyone to show him the way except that he’s done it before and he’s a king. There’s not something richer in there than the struggle Peter’s already shown us?
And Lucy wanting to be pretty, wanting to be Susan. Again, not the fascinating part of a character who is becoming a woman, is not the baby of the family any longer but must be a woman and find her independence without losing her beautiful innocence, who has been a queen but never the pretty one. So, yes there are glimmers of Susan/pretty in there, but it’s only worth bringing to the forefront if there’s a reason she wants to be beautiful, if there’s a reason to be attractive that makes her feel inadequate. But there was no one eliciting that inadequacy from her.
Caspian really had no conflicts, no struggles or anything worth fighting for so as dashing as Ben Barnes was, he was a little placid.
Also, one of the most beautiful things about Prince Caspian was the nobility of the characters. You believed that the Pevensie kids and Caspian were royalty because of the dignity and bravery and integrity they embodied. It was faintly there in Dawn Treader, but such pale glimmers. I missed their nobility where you didn’t have to say that they were kings and queens because they so obviously just were.
And in the character section, I was a little distracted that Simon Pegg voiced Reepicheep instead of Eddie Izzard. not as good.
On the other hand, Eustace was great. Will Poulter did a fabulous job of making Eustace awful when he’s supposed to be awful and giving him strength and dignity in the end. He’s given his moment of heroism and learns humility and is the only character who really grows and changes and is interesting. They handled losing his dragon skin mostly well, so it wasn’t a big bloody mess, which I think was good.
and then there’s the story…
3 – Don’t be so heavy handed
This was not a subtle movie. They even kept the end where Aslan says that he’s known by a different name in our world and they’ve been brought to Narnia that in knowing him there they’ll know him better here. which is one of my favorite parts of the book and why Dawn Treader is often my favorite book. But in the movie it was painful to me. because it was so obvious. because he said nearly the same thing in Caspian, but he was subtle and honest and I loved it there.
Plus so many other things are heavy handed in this movie, it didn’t feel like an adventure on each island so much as a morality lesson on each island. And yes, you could make the argument that that’s exactly what C.S. Lewis offers in the books, but I would counter that Lewis is more subtle (he’s not that subtle and he’s still more subtle than the movie) and more classy in how he articulates the point he’s illustrating through each adventure.
And in being heavy handed with the morality lesson on each island it made what Lewis was saying trite. Which is the most tragic thing about the whole movie, to me.
Not to mention that the score is inferior to the first two films, even though Harry Gregson-Williams did all three. This one lacked the emotional heft of the first two films and the sense of epic wonder.
I can only imagine that the creative input from the studio is what hurt the film so badly because despite the difficulties in adapting, Fox did a much poorer job of handling the material than Disney did, even with Walden Media and two writers connecting them. Dawn Treader is heavy handed, simplistic and weakly written. Beautiful but not really interesting.
ETA: And here’s Variety’s review because I think they’re pretty spot on:
Valiantly attempting to relaunch Walden Media’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” Fox has hitched itself to one leaky vessel with “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Taking a faith-based sledgehammer to C.S. Lewis’ enchanting source novel, this f/x-heavy third adaptation of the Christian-themed fantasy series feels routine and risk-averse in every respect, as if investment anxiety had fatally hobbled its sense of wonder. Public goodwill toward the “Narnia” name, 3D ticket premiums and a well-timed December release could spell friendly B.O. winds initially, but this creatively downsized entry doesn’t feel like a franchise high-water mark commercially or artistically.
When Disney pulled out after 2008’s “Prince Caspian” (which earned $415 million worldwide but fell short of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s” staggering $745 million haul), it fell to Fox to keep “Narnia” afloat through its marketing/distribution pact with Walden.
Rightly beloved by generations of readers young and old, faithful and secular, Lewis’ seven-volume cycle was always a tricky bigscreen proposition. None of “Wardrobe’s” six sequels can match it for name recognition and classic appeal, and because the stories are all self-contained, written out of chronological sequence and centered around a shifting gallery of protagonists, the series overall lacks the sustaining narrative urgency and continuity of such gold-standard movie franchises as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”
A particular reader favorite, “Dawn Treader” itself posed unique challenges to adaptation: A long seafaring adventure with a vague narrative thrust and no major villain, the story is gentle in spirit, episodic in structure and richly invested in character-driven themes of wisdom and maturity prevailing over temptation and pride. The film’s principal flaw is that it views this as a condition to be remedied, rather than a quality to be embraced. Scribes Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and “Narnia” newbie Michael Petroni have attempted to up the stakes by tacking on a dull “Rings”-like fantasy quest, as well as a climactic sea-monster battle that smacks of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Far more emphatically than in the novel, Lucy, Edmund and especially Eustace must endure tough tests of character, aided by occasional benevolent interventions from the great lion Aslan. Rather than weaving these moral quandaries into an adventure that’s compelling on its own terms, the script foregrounds them like Sunday school illustrations in which the word “faith” is frequently invoked but never once examined.
Inspiring retroactive appreciation for Andrew Adamson’s earnest but entirely respectable helming on the first two films, Michael Apted’s workmanlike direction suggests a singular lack of interest in the mythic world he’s showing us. The oceanic backdrop and island visitations offered an opportunity to broaden Narnia’s visual horizons, but “Dawn Treader” looks hastily executed, relying on excessive over-the-mast shots to convey a sweeping sense of grandeur.
Result is a picture that, in its gaudy vfx, substandard 3D and homily-like sense of drama, feels straitjacketed by its mandate to deliver a Christian-targeted, mainstream-friendly entertainment (all on a budget and production schedule reportedly far tighter than “Prince Caspian’s”).
Doing their part to maintain audience connection to the core characters are Henley and Keynes, both good at conveying the sly sense of mischief that keeps Lucy and Edmund recognizably human, while Poulter makes a delightfully impudent Eustace, who undergoes the story’s most profound transformation, literally and figuratively.