Film Review

The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Voyage of The Dawn Treader

Review by Jason Staples
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Vol. 15, No. 1, April 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Voyage of The Dawn Treader

[1] Perhaps the most cinematic of C. S. Lewis’ beloved Chronicles of Narnia series, one might expect The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — with its dragons, rescues from slavery, treasure, sea-serpents, and the like — to translate quite naturally to the silver screen. This version (directed by Michael Apted), however, has the character of a built-by-committee project — the sort of compromise-driven movie aiming to maximize its audience without alienating its base. It is apparent that fan backlash to the controversial leaked script in 2008 led to substantial compromises and changes but not wholesale abandon of that script, resulting in a middling film containing enough “litmus test” scenes and lines to satisfy many Lewis fans while still attempting to plot a wholly new course for the film.

[2] While Peter and Susan are with their parents in America, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) are stuck staying with their prepubescent cousin Eustace Clarence Scrubb (Will Poulter), who mocks them for their fantasy world of Narnia — until all three are drawn through a magical painting, becoming passengers on the dragon-headed ship of Narnian King Caspian (Ben Barnes, this time without the faux-Spanish accent from Prince Caspian) and his crew, including the talking mouse, Reepicheep (Simon Pegg).

[3] In an effort to simplify the book’s narrative (which lacks an overarching enemy), the film introduces a new unifying quest, transforming Lewis’ rather inconsequential Dark Island (“where dreams come true”) into a “place where evil lurks … [that] seeks to corrupt all goodness, to steal the light from this world” (portrayed in a personified fashion reminiscent of The Fifth Element’s “Great Evil”). Dark Island sends out a green mist that tempts all who come into contact with it (reminiscent of the power of the Ring in Lord of the Rings); to defeat this evil, Caspian and the children must “break its spell” by collecting seven special swords and placing them together on “Aslan’s table.”

[4] Where the film ran aground was in its struggle to unify this (somewhat clichéd) extraneous narrative with specific adventures retained from the book. Many scenes give the impression that they were retained not because they are integral to the movie but because Lewis enthusiasts would be upset for their absence. The result is a hurried island tour in which the viewer is rushed from one landmark scene to another, with little time afforded for the audience to become invested in a given character or adventure before they are whisked away to something else. Ironically, it seems the attempt to insert a simplified and cohesive quest while also retaining important scenes actually resulted in a more fragmented and arbitrary narrative, with the audience never quite sure of the rationale for anything happening on screen.

[5] In an attempt to court the so-called “faith-based community,” Voyage prominently features “faith” language and trite moralizing. Some Christian viewers will be especially satisfied that the film retains Aslan’s (Liam Neeson) declaration that he “has another name” in the children’s world and that they should come to know him by that name. This scene notwithstanding, the film’s faith — carefully ambiguous enough to be inoffensive to a non-Christian audience — more closely resembles the positive-thinking message of self-help books or motivational speakers than Lewis’ Christianity. This amorphous faith is typified by such platitudes as “you just have to have faith about these things” and “well, we have nothing if not belief,” giving no reason as to why one thing should be believed over another. Lucy is reprimanded for “doubting her value,” while the characters are consistently enjoined to think positively and hope for the best — negativity, fear, and low self-esteem are the ultimate enemies.

[6] Perhaps most significantly, Lewis’ explanation for Eustace’s transformation into a dragon — that Eustace’s appearance now reflects his true internal condition — is transformed into a more reassuring “extraordinary things only happen to extraordinary people.” Thus the film’s commitment to a perpetually positive message stands at odds with Lewis’ point that becoming a dragon — inasmuch as it forced Eustace to reckon with his true self — was in fact a necessary step towards his redemption. (The redemption scene, where Eustace is arbitrarily and magically “undragoned,” likewise misses the mark.) The film also goes out of its way to insert “pro-family” themes (e.g. Caspian’s longing for his father) absent from Lewis’ Narnia but quite important to some demographics today.

[7] All that said, Voyage is still the most enjoyable installment of the Chronicles so far, lacking the constant bickering from the prior films and featuring several quite enjoyable bright spots. The film’s CG is impressive (although too “clean” and fairy-tale-ish rather than epic); it’s hard to imagine a better rendering of the entrance to Narnia. Poulter gives a delightfully rotten performance as Eustace, and Pegg’s Reepicheep hits the right notes. Their on-ship duel is quite fun, as are several of the scenes with dragon-Eustace. Overall, however, the resulting film is merely “okay,” though its incorporation of overt but nebulous faith and family-friendly themes in place of Lewis’ more subtle but pointed Christian symbolism should make this film interesting for those interested in popular appropriations of religious themes.

Chronicles of Narnia
The Fifth Element
Lord of the Rings


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