The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Directed by Michael Apted
Say this for the Narnia movies: they certainly don't get much worse as they go along. They also belong to that elite club of big-budget sequels that may technically be better than the originals, but by such small margins that it scarcely registers (Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life and XXX: State of the Union can show them around). Of course, the Narnia series works with the considerable handicap of its returning cast, stiff child actors growing into stiff young-adult actors like some sort of cursed flipside to the Harry Potter crew while continually out-acted by a CGI Christ-lion (voiced by Liam Neeson, proving that Walden Media's checks aren't bouncing yet).
If the series, now housed at Fox after Prince Caspian disappointed the Disney bosses, does continue, returning Pevensie children Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) probably won't be around, but Voyage of the Dawn Treader wastes no time introducing a new recurring irritant in Cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), a mincing, uptight brat who accompanies Edmund and Lucy on a sudden, cut-to-the-chase journey to Narnia. For most of the movie, Poulter plays Eustace as a prissy straw man, a coward who takes solace in (yuck!) science and facts rather than unquestioning Narnian faith. It's a singularly unpleasant performance, but Poutler was effective as another bratty kid in Son of Rambow a few years ago, so it's probably fair to lay blame upon writing that has all the depth, characterization, and wit of a Goofus and Gallant cartoon.
At least Eustace (spoiler alert?) turns into a dragon for a little while, showing off special effects much improved from the hit-and-miss original film (and saving the filmmakers the trouble of coaxing a more humane performance from Poulter). Another improvement: the episodic, frankly sort of rambling Dawn Treader story, which has the Pevensie kids and Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) sailing around the Narnian high seas with the vague goal of defeating a nondescript, fear-baiting Evil, makes the heroics, such as they are, seem a little less predetermined, as well as, at 115 minutes to the previous films' 140-plus, less lumbering.
But still, it should be said, not particularly exciting, and the movie resorts to hyping itself up. "That was thrilling!" exclaims Lucy after an early, mild encounter with, uh, water. Elsewhere, the commentary turns less content; faced with danger, a character makes a back-up plan "in case we don't get through whatever this is," and Eustace refers to all of the Narnia love as "florid delusions." Maybe that's taking it a bit too far, Eustace (say five Hail Aslans and ten Our Aslans as penance!), but as the film sails from magical supper tables to islands of evil to Aslan's heavenly land beyond, the jumble of mythology and theology grows wearying. You have to wonder if the filmmakers have that magical faith Lucy never shuts up about. Do they actually believe this? Whatever this is?
Opens December 10