Have you ever seen one of your favorite novels adapted for the screen in such a way that you are blinded to any flaws? The kind of film adaptation where so much is thrown in from the book that you spend the entire time going “I remember that, and that, and that, and that…” until the credits roll? The kind of film that can bring you back to where you first enjoyed the story no matter how many years have passed?
For me, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is almost that film. I first encountered C.S. Lewis’ allegorical novels when I was nine years old. I was loaned the full series in a box set and read through them back to back during winter break. I couldn’t get enough of them. The magical lands and various storytelling devices were compelling. The children were relatable and–yes–I enjoyed the references I did pick up to my faith. As I revisited the books over the years, I found myself drawn to one more than all the rest: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It had action, it had excitement, it had suspense, and it had Reepicheep. Who could hate a swashbuckling, honor-driven, anthropomorphic mouse?
The film version hit all those essentials for me. After a few minutes of background to explain why the Pevensie children have been halved (Susan and Peter are all grown up and living abroad, Edmund and Lucy are staying with their Aunt and Uncle) and who this annoying little twerp Eustace is (their privileged, abrasive cousin), the trio of children are drawn into a portrait of a ship at sea and sail off on the Dawn Treader. There they meet a familiar cast of characters, like Prince Caspian (now King) and Reepicheep, who are trying to find out what happened to the seven Lords of Narnia.
From here, the story departs tremendously from the book. What was left to make me so repeatedly excited? Lots, actually. For one thing, all the major plot elements from the books were rewritten to better match the tone of the prior two films. For example, the first adventure in both the book and the film takes place on the Lost Island. In the book, the people of the island have created their wealth through slave trade. A man abduct Caspian as a slave mere moments after they land on the shore. In the film, the slave trade is still there, but it is Lucy and Eustace who are ambushed and sold to the highest bidders at auction. Where the novel had one of the missing Lords buy Caspian, the film places the Lord as a sympathetic figure trapped by the system of governance on the island. They both get the same point across, but the film makes everything fall in line with audience expectations. There is a clear end goal and a myriad of fanciful characters are met along the way to aid and impede their voyage.
…Dawn Treader always felt like an outsider in the Narnia universe because the Pevensie children have no vested interest in why they returned to Narnia; they are thrown into the action and never learn why they are there. The film pulls them in straight away with an action sequence on the first island that encourages Edmund and Lucy to want to help no matter what. More personal details of their experiences in Narnia are woven in through nightmares and visions to better draw in a viewer less familiar with the books. There are purists who will despise these additions (especially the mysterious green mist that swallows ships whole), but they are also the same purists who have hated the other two films for far less severe changes than this. If you fall into the logic of the film, you’ll accept the plot. It only adds two recurring visual devices to steer the journey in a cinematic way.
The problem with being so drawn into an adaptation because I recognized so much of it was maintaining a sense of objectivity while watching. I may have left the theater with a big grin on my face, but I knew there were major problems with the film. At an hour and fifty minutes, it is simply too long. This is caused by the poorly constructed dialog and acting in the film. Eustace (played very well by series newcomer Will Poulter) and Lucy (returning actor Georgie Henley, again giving the best performance) do fine work on the film. It’s everyone else who falls victim to…unnecessary pauses. You would think that the green mist in the film caused wide-spread asthma judging by how long it takes these characters to say anything longer than a sentence in the film. It also causes a decreased reaction time judging by the pauses between each character’s dialog. What was probably intended to be a grand dramatic effect was irritating. The target audience may be young, but they aren’t stupid. They can handle more than four sentences a minute in dialog.
The series has always had lovely special effects and they have never looked better. The transportation sequences–where the room swells with water from the painting, whisking the unsuspecting children into the path of the Dawn Treader–are beautiful. However, the films have grown increasingly enamored with their special effects. We’ve already seen the water-mermaids, minotaurs, and fauns, yet the film repeatedly uses lingering shots of the creatures for no narrative purpose. When a new land is introduced, there is an identical sweeping shot from the perspective of the boat to show what the whole island looks like, followed by a lengthy sequence on the shore before the characters either camp for the night or go adventuring. If they camp for the night, you better believe there will be an extended effects sequence to demonstrate how special the visuals are. If the production team trusted the audience to remember that this is a fantasy series, these sequences could have all been trimmed back significantly. This, in turn, would have produced a far tighter fantasy/adventure film that would have improved the experience immensely.
Then there is the screenplay. What writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni accomplished with resetting the unrelated adventures of the book into a more connected plot is undermined by the horrible dialog. Every character says immediately what they are feeling in every scene. I can’t remember exact quotations, but suffice it to say the three minute back and forth over whether or not it was ok to steal an orange from the galley followed by two minute sword fight felt a bit unwieldy in the theater. Any sense of naturalism in the dialog from the first film (and visible in fleeting moments in the second) is gone. Worst of all, it made the Aslan dialog feel realistic, not preachy, even when he was a few “thou”s from Biblical scripture. The way to solve the balance of allegory to modern entertainment was not to overwrite every other scene to make the allegory seem palatable by comparison, and the film suffers for it.
If you are willing to overlook the major flaws, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an enjoyable family film. There is plenty of action, well-executed effects, and marvelous worlds to explore. It can just be overbearing at times, as if the entire production team feared being ignored. I doubt Aslan would approve of such vain attention-seeking tactics as slowing dialog to a crawl and staring in mirrors as a recurring visual motif.