Full disclosure: I’ve not seen the first two instalments of the Narnia saga (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian), nor have I read any of C.S. Lewis’ much-loved books upon which the films are based. This leaves me in a tricky position as a reviewer, especially as I prepare to offer my analysis on the third film of The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Why should I expect you to care about my opinion if I’ve not even seen the first two-thirds of this story? Well, I never expect readers to care about my opinion, so that solves that. More pressingly though, what could I possibly say about a film that very much seems as if it requires the knowledge of its predecessors to fully enjoy? Well, I can say that, first of all. But what else? Let’s find out! It’ll be a surprise for all of us!
Before heading into the cinema to view The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I asked those far more informed than I (a.k.a. the Twitter masses) for a brief recap of the story so far. I feel it’s only fair that you see for yourself what I was working with. I was told that the story centered on the Pevensie siblings, who discovered in their cupboard a mystical entryway to the fantastical land of Narnia. I learnt Narnia was home to a number of talking animals, including a lion named Aslan, who is a thinly veiled version of either God or Christ (or both!). I discovered the Pevensies were the kings and queens of Narnia, and they left it in the good hands of a Spanish pirate prince named Caspian when they returned to London. This all seemed interesting enough. What was most interesting was the volume and speed of responses I received within moments of posting my request on Twitter. I don’t know how many franchises would inspire such a vociferous reply. There is great love for the Narnia series – a love I must admit I don’t fully share after watching the lumbering, unemotional, Michael Apted-directed Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Here is the (non-Twitter sourced) plot: The two youngest Pevensie children – Edmund (Skander Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) – are living with their insufferable cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) during the early days of World War 2. Feeling helpless in London – far from the demands of leading armies – Edmund and Lucy are glad to be summoned once again to their true home of Narnia. Eustace is not-so-accidentally pulled into this fantasy land too, and the three of them join Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard his ship The Dawn Treader. Their mission – for reasons that are not fully explained – is to locate the seven swords of the lost Lords of Narnia, and to use them to save this world from … something. Uhh, quick a distraction! Look, special effects!
I was surprised by the similarities between the plot of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and that of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Perhaps surprised is the wrong word, as I no doubt assumed the works of Lewis (and also Tolkien) greatly influenced Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. More like annoyed. The Pevensies’ search for the seven swords seems awfully similar to Harry, Ron and Hermione’s hunt for the seven horcruxes. And we just watched the Deathly Hallows! Now, we shouldn’t lay the blame for the similar plot on Lewis (especially considering he wrote his book almost five decades earlier than Rowling). But the plots are executed in vastly different ways in Harry Potter and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; one interesting, one not.
Having characters on the hunt for any object can seem episodic, especially when there are seven of them. There are exceptions to the rule; Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is one of them, in which each of the seven (7!) ex-boyfriends of Ramona Flowers that Scott battles offers an insight into Ramona’s past. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an exception too; as Harry and co. search (often aimlessly) for their MacGuffins, they quarrel, break-up, reunite, explore confusing sexual feelings and ultimately grow as friends. The objects they seek are just that: objects. They mean nothing. They’re used to some degree as devices to propel the plot, but Deathly Hallows director David Yates primarily utilises them to advance character development. Apted treats the objects in this film as the be all and end all; the hunt itself is more important than what the journey means for the characters. But the hunt is never interesting, and thus, neither are the characters.
The special effects are nice, particularly in a final battle between the crew of The Dawn Treader and a giant prickly sea slug. But when you don’t care about the characters in the battle, it’s merely watching money on screen. In the film’s finale, as the Pevensies offer their final farewells, I heard a few sniffles and stifled tears from fellow audience members. Perhaps they have been on this journey since film one, and didn’t jump aboard the train just as it was about to pull into the station (like me). Perhaps they’ve spent three full films getting to know these characters, and as such are invested in their struggle. As someone who has read all the Harry Potter books and seen all the films, I sometimes find it difficult to discern whether or not each instalment of that saga is enjoyable as a stand-alone movie. I guess I’ll never know. With The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I’m experiencing the Narnia tale from the perspective of a non-fan (hey, I guess I can contribute a unique angle). Maybe I don’t feel engaged with this film because I’ve not invested in the other films, or the books. Maybe that’s why I didn’t care for the film’s insincere quaintness, and its on-the-nose Christian allusions. Maybe, but probably not. I think this one can be blamed on the lacklustre direction, stiff acting and tedious screenplay. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an absolute slog; an overlong, uninteresting, and sorely uninspired picture that simply doesn’t work on its own. But hey, what do I know?
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is in Australian cinemas now.