C.S. Lewis' 'Narnia' novels may have spanned seven books and several generations in their appeal, but their on-screen adaptations have always paled in comparison to the bigger and better likes of 'Harry Potter' and 'The Lord of the Rings.' The most remarkably unremarkable fantasy franchise around doesn't exactly break that streak with 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' but it comes the closest so far in the series to achieving satisfying, rip-roaring adventure before the religious elements return in full force.
The elder Pevensie siblings are out of the picture for the most part, having been shipped off to America to live with dear old Dad. The younger two, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are forced to endure alongside bratty cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) in brink-of-WWII London. The kingdom of Narnia comes a-calling, though, and all three find themselves summoned to the magical land, re-united with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and faced with a sinister green mist that's claiming their citizens by the boatload.
If the first two films felt somewhat reminiscent of the above-mentioned fantasy fare, then 'Dawn Treader' skews a bit closer to the island-hopping plots of a 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie and, in its better moments, the classic adventures of Ray Harryhausen. Michael Apted ('The World is Not Enough') does a perfectly capable job in the director's chair, although the switch in cinematography from film to digital video gives live-action elements a distracting blur and the overall production an almost cheaper feel. (For being converted in post-production, the 3D presentation itself is perfectly adequate, enhancing otherwise convincing special effects without bringing much of an added "wow!" factor to the picture.)
The young British actors, comfortable enough around said special effects, still have their more wooden moments, especially upon their return to Narnia, and are saddled with simplistic character arcs. (He wants power, like his older brother had! She wants beauty, like her older sister has!) But neither Edmund nor Lucy are as woefully irritating as Eustace. A charming enough scamp in 'Son of Rambow,' Poulter plays out the stuffy, science-minded skeptic far harder than he has to, making his eventual transformation into a speechless dragon not so much a magical occurrance so much as a merciful one.
An early skermish with slave traders is marginally exciting, a quest to retrieve seven swords from seven lords feels far more routine, an encounter with invisible gnomes attempting an amusing amount of vocal intimidation brings welcome levity, while a climactic battle against a nasty sea serpent proves more thrilling than expected, if not more thrilling than any other showdown in the series to date. And then, at the very end, the lion we've all been waiting for makes his full-fledged return; however, the arrival of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) this time marks the clunkiest semi-sermon about Christian values, converting stuffy, science-minded skeptics, and reaching heaven. As I understand it, Lewis himself included as much in the books, but so far as the films go, this one is the least subtle in its underlying message.
Although there are four more books to adapt and, reportedly, one more film in production, Apted ends 'Dawn Treader' with a general sense of finality. Given the waning box-office returns and overall generic nature of the series, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Besides, if another sequel means more Eustace, then you count me out on that voyage before it even sets sail.