Oh Me of Little Faith
The sins of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are many. There are the typical problems that plague family-aimed fantasy films, from the emphasis on visuals and hollow excitement over the lives of the characters, to the generally awful dialogue that feels like no thought was given to how those characters should express themselves beyond the kind of bald declarative statements one only hears in movies. There's also the generally shoddy script, which attempts to do a staggering amount in two hours and makes what could have been a straightforward high-seas adventure into an impossibly muddy and rushed affair that gives no pleasure at all. Yet the worst, the absolute worst, is the clumsiness with which director Michael Apted and writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni deal with the Christian allegories ported over from C.S. Lewis' novel. The film assumes that anyone watching is (a) at least cursorily familiar with the source material and also probably (b) a religious person of some degree, if not explicitly Christian, and as a result, the finished product doesn't try that hard to make its case. That's the only explanation for the ungainly way the story's faith elements are handled. It's as if the mere presence of church-flavored sentences and nods toward a higher power were enough to make those references artistic, and that gives the film a feeling of moral superiority when it should have one of hopeful yearning. There's nothing inherently wrong with making a movie in which the main characters work through their problems by looking for answers from a particular brand of faith; off the top of my head, Chariots of Fire, The Mission, and Tender Mercies are excellent examples of what it means to wrestle with belief and doubt in a Christian sense. Yet in Dawn Treader, faith is too often replaced with recitation, and attempts to incorporate belief into action are done so superficially that the result is unmoving. Rather than illustrate real struggle or present moments of grace with, well, grace, the film is one in which the appearance of faith is the same as having it. Had it at least been honest, it would be something to respect, even for those who don't agree with its particular brand of belief. But as it is, it's just cheap.
The film is of two minds from the very beginning, as it tries to act like a seamless continuation of the previous installments while also offering some blandly expository dialogue meant to catch up those who've forgotten what's happened. Whatever memories might be jogged by the clunky lines are brushed aside by an awareness of just how cheaply job-oriented they are: the first of these comes in the first scene, as the teenaged Edmund (Skandar Keynes) vents to his younger sister, Lucy (Georgie Henley), that he should be allowed to fight for England in World War II because he's a king who's commanded armies. "Not in this world!" she cheerfully reminds him, as if he or she needed reminding of their prior trips to the parallel world of Narnia in which they and their two older siblings fought monsters and ruled for decades. It's just so off, so amateurish, that it soon becomes impossible to take anything either of them says seriously since it's so clearly meant to be a "Remember this?" nudge to the audience. Apted's job isn't to remind us what we liked last time but to give us something to like again, yet throughout the film, he seems to coast on what's come before and hope that viewers' increasingly vague memories of a mostly good time at the theater are enough to see him home.
Soon enough, Lucy and Edmund are spirited away to Narnia along with their cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter), with whom they've been living during the war while the rest of their family is in the United States. They find themselves at sea but soon picked up by the Dawn Treader, a ship commanded by King Caspian (Ben Barnes), who ascended to the throne in the previous film. Edmund at first expresses confusion as to why he and Lucy wound up in Narnia, since there doesn't seem to be any issue that needs their solving, but the screenwriters soon hit them with plenty: Caspian is looking for seven missing lords who knew his father, and the crew also comes across an island being plagued by an evil mist whose origins lie in the uncharted eastern waters, and it turns out that the missing lords all had matching swords, and that recovering the swords and reuniting them will solve the problem of the evil mist. Plus one of the island inhabitants whose wife was taken by the green mist joins Caspian's crew, and the man's daughter stows away and later appears on deck, so the crew also has to find the missing woman and try and reunite the family.
This is, as you might be realizing, quite a lot to deal with, and the creative team doesn't handle it well. Caspian's constantly changing motivations to keep sailing into the unknown -- for adventure, for the missing men, for the lost swords, for the rescue mission -- pile up on each other and make the film feel directionless despite its repeated attempts at drive. There's no narrative thrust, and the emotional ones are equally shallow. Lucy still feels like she can't measure up to her older sister, Susan (Anna Popplewell); Edmund still wishes he had the power offered to him by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton); Caspian still wants to measure up to his late father. It's the appearance of the White Witch in Edmund's nightmares that really grates. Had Apted been working from a better script, perhaps he could have made some points about how our worst temptations never really leave us, but instead it just feels like the appearance of the Witch was inserted as another "You used to like us!" plea from the creative team hoping to make people remember how much money they spent on tickets for 2005's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It's a copy of a copy, since Edmund had the same wavering moments in 2008's Prince Caspian, and as such, totally forgettable.
As the children and sailors journey across the sea to deal with whatever obstacle is up in the rotation, the film takes regular breaks to hit viewers over the head with a lite version of religious inspiration that feels cobbled from everything but real life. When Lucy tells the stowaway girl that they'll find her missing mother, the girl asks how Lucy can believe such a thing. "We have nothing if not belief," Lucy answers with all the subtlety of a gong. Yes, the film is allegorical, so there's admittedly a degree to which a certain bluntness is expected, but even so, the writers seem at pains here to make things as easy as possible for the characters and viewers. Perhaps if they'd narrowed the stories down to one or two, we might be allowed to see the characters think, grow, and react to their surroundings; as it is, they merely run through them, fire off a few simple exclamations, and win the day. (Tied with this egregiousness is the derivative moment in which the children confront the evil mist, which declares that it will take the shape of whatever they fear the most and destroy them; I half expected a giant marshmallow man to arise and devour them all.) The screenplay's scenes feels stitched together with all the care of the human centipede, taking serviceable parts and creating a lifeless whole.
Perhaps this is the best way to understand the film's failures: certain screenings of Dawn Treader are in 3-D, and in addition to being the same dim and ugly experience you would expect, the process also illustrates the sheer pointlessness of 3-D in a regular film. The device adds unnecessary depth to simple scenes, acting as if a fancy visual process does more for a particular shot than simple focus, lighting, and clarity. Yet that depth is just an illusion: we're not seeing any more than we would if the movie were in the standard two dimensions. Similarly, the film acts as if it's tackling weighty issues of faith, but it isn't; it's merely using certain word combinations or moments of heavy symbolism to convey the illusion of depth. An emotional, spiritual adventure about youth and life really would have been something to see, but the film's as shallow as the screen it's projected on, and as intangible as the image being displayed. What looks three-dimensional is just a blurry pattern playing a trick on your eyes.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He's also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.