If only C. S. Lewis had known that the success or failure of The Chronicles of Narnia — the Hollywood franchise, that is, not the Oxford don’s original seven-book cycle — would hinge on how the series’ third installment performed at the box office. Then he might have written The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with Robert McKee’s guide to screenwriting by his side, instead of taking his inspiration from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the imaginative mapmakers of the Middle Ages. Or else he might have saved Dawn Treader’s episodic, picaresque charms for book six or so, and moved The Silver Chair or The Horse and His Boy to the third slot, the better to furnish Hollywood with the kind of pitched battles, clear antagonists, and good-versus-evil finales that a blockbuster requires.
Such heretical thoughts, no doubt, occasionally flitted through the minds of the studio executives charged with floating Dawn Treader into theaters this Christmas, and saving the Narnia series from a premature decommissioning in the process. The attempt to build a box-office juggernaut out of Lewis’s beloved series got off to a solid enough start with 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but 2008’s Prince Caspian was widely (if somewhat unfairly) judged a clunking failure, and after its grosses failed to justify its price tag, the franchise was unceremoniously dry-docked by Walt Disney Pictures. At this point Fox swept in, slashed the budget, replaced Andrew Adamson (of Shrek infamy) in the director’s chair with the old pro Michael Apted, and pushed the saga out for one more cinematic voyage.
Sadly, I’m afraid that this one might be the last. The problem isn’t budgetary: Even with less lavish financing than its predecessors, Dawn Treader’s special effects are generally effective and occasionally lovely, and in any case the Narnia stories play better as intimate fairy tales than as the kind of sweeping Lord of the Rings–style epic that Caspian aspired to be. No, the difficulty is that pesky source material. There are Lewis aficionados (though not this one) who consider Dawn Treader the finest chronicle of Narnia. But its virtues are ill-suited to the screen, and its uncinematic story pretty much requires some sort of screenwriter tampering. The trouble is that in this case the tamperers don’t seem to have had any idea of how to go about their business.
Dawn Treader’s story, in the book and movie alike, sends the two youngest Pevensie children, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), through a seascape painting into the Narnian ocean, accompanied by their awful prig of a cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb (a wonderfully swinish Will Poulter). The three are swiftly picked up by the titular ship, which is carrying Prince-turned-King Caspian (Ben Barnes) on a quest for seven exiled lords — and perhaps for Aslan’s country as well, which is rumored to await travelers at the uttermost edge of the world.
#page#In the book, this odyssey leads to island-hopping and a series of magical adventures — some comic, some swashbuckling, and some frightening, but all of them essentially self-enclosed, with no broader conflict to bind them together. That would be a fine structure for a miniseries, but not for a two-hour movie, so the makers of Dawn Treader have labored to create a through-line for their story, by giving the characters a singular mission: They must confront the green mist of Dark Island and defeat it, lest absolute evil rule the seas.
What is this absolute evil, the inquiring moviegoer might ask? Er — well, it’s absolute evil, you see, so it doesn’t exactly have much in the way of personality or purpose. It just sits there, shrouded in darkness and belching mist, and occasionally swallowing up boatloads of extras just because it can. (The refusal to explain Dark Island’s malignancy in anything save the most evasive terms reminded me uncomfortably of the entire final season of Lost.) And it can be defeated only by placing the seven swords of the noble Narnian lords on Aslan’s table, at which point . . . well, they’re the seven swords, you see, and it’s all magic, and magic doesn’t need an explanation, right? Right?
Again, I understand that Dawn Treader the movie needed a more consistent through-line than Dawn Treader the novel supplied. But the plot the screenwriters settled on is thin, arbitrary, and eminently forgettable. It feels more like a video game (collect the 25 coins and kill the Big Boss, and you win the level, Mario!) than a C. S. Lewis novel.
The movie has its pleasures even so: Some of the island visits manage to channel the enchanted spirit of the book, Scrubb’s moral progress is nicely handled, and the ever-reliable Simon Pegg does an excellent voice for Reepicheep the Mouse. It’s a lovely film as well, with a bright fairyland palette that evokes Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish. And it’s worth noting, in the filmmakers’ defense, that the Narnia movies have been no more inconsistent thus far than the Harry Potter saga, which has inspired seven movies — and counting! — but only one genuinely successful film. (That would be Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban.)
But the Potter stories are fresh and the fan base is still frothing. Lewis is beloved, but Narnia is an old reliable rather than a new phenomenon, and there’s no pop-culture drumbeat impelling families to the theater. These movies need to rise or sink on their quality alone — and with Dawn Treader, the franchise is taking on water in a hurry.