Film fantasy has always been tricky, and one of the biggest reasons is because it's tough to make magic feel real, and it's even tougher to make a magical world work onscreen without it feeling like a bunch of special effects. Growing up, I had to really exercise my suspension of disbelief on the fantasy films I loved, and that's fine. That was part of the pleasure of those films, handing yourself over to the imperfect illusion, and it seemed like great fantasies were few and far between, so as a young filmgoer, I learned to savor whatever I got and enjoy the things that worked while overlooking the things that didn't.
We live in a remarkable age, though, when the wholesale creation of miracles has become commonplace, and we've gotten to the point where we almost routinely ignore the amazing. The thing is, when the technical game has been raised for everyone, and the heavy lifting of world-building can be done to such an astonishing degree in film after film, it all comes back to the intangible, the hard-to-define, the genuinely magic, and that is just as rare as it's ever been.
For all the effort involved in the first two films in the "Narnia" franchise, neither film worked completely for me. I think they are both handsomely made and ambitious and serious-minded enough that I respect the efforts, and there's an admirable loyalty to the work of C.S. Lewis in the adaptations. The second film improved on the first film in several ways, and one of the things that worked in its favor was the cumulative weight of watching the young cast playing the Pensevie kids grow up between films. Now, with "The Voyage Of The Dawn Trader," the franchise has managed to deliver its best adventure yet, and I'm curious to see if it ends up being too little too late.
From the very first film, the two best performances have been those of Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes as the younger Pensevie kids, Lucy and Edmund. In the last film, "Prince Caspian," their older siblings made their last trips into the magical realm of Narnia, having reached the age where they can no longer return. As a result, this adventure is the one where Lucy and Edmund step up and take center stage, which is exactly what the subtext of the film deals with. This is a movie about feeling like you're overshadowed and somehow carving out your own place in the world, and it packs a surprising punch thanks to the work that Keynes and Henley do in the movie. Both of these kids are wracked with doubt and with weaknesses that come into play as they face down the biggest threat to the safety of Narnia so far.
Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is also back this time, and he's leading a quest that Lucy and Edmund join to find out what happened to the Seven Lords, hidden during the troubles of the previous film. I've always said one of the keys to a Narnia film is how they make the transition from one world to the other, and it's hard to beat the iconic sequence from "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." Here, it's a moment while Edmund and Lucy are arguing with their awful cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), and it's a great moment that sets the tone for the way magic works in this particular entry. Michael Apted proves to have a lovely command of tone here, making all the magic in the film feel absolutely effortless, and from the moment the kids arrive in Narnia, the film is always moving forward, always introducing a new place or a new situation or a new set of characters.
And instead of feeling episodic, this is the first of the films in the series where there's been a real pulse, where it's felt organic. Henley and Keynes carry much of the film, but the relationship that defines the movie is between Poulter's character and Reepicheep, the warrior mouse that was voiced by Eddie Izzard in "Prince Caspian," and who is voiced by Simon Pegg this time. Poulter, who was so good in "Son Of Rambow" a few years ago, is saddled with a tough character at first, since Eustace is a whining non-believer, one of my least favorite archetypes in fantasy. I hate when a character is confronted with a fantastic situation and spends time and energy complaining or denying instead of embracing the fantasy. It's just a frustrating character, and at first, Poulter worried me. Reepicheep takes an interest in Eustace, constantly challenging him and pushing him, determined to find some good in this kid, and what evolves between the two of them ends up feeling very real, very honest. Eustace evolves, though, and by the time the film ends, he and Reepicheep have created one of the best connections in the entire series. Pegg brings a dignity and a spirit to Reepicheep that is charming and never overly cute, which is no easy feat.
One of my biggest problems with the first film was the uneasy way it dealt with one of the central ideas in the work of Lewis, Christian theology. There's no way to avoid the crucifixion metaphor in "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," and why should you avoid it? The reason Lewis wrote these books was to offer up a new context to a theology that was important to him, and to offer young readers a new way to understand the story of Christ. In that first film, I felt like they tried to play it both ways, including enough of the material to make it overt, but never making it feel like an organic part of the film. It was like they were afraid of it, but knew they couldn't leave it out. In the second film, they dropped all of that, and they focused on making a more blatant adventure movie. This time, they've swung back in the other direction, and I would say this is the most overtly Christian film of the series so far, and yet, it feels so well-incorporated into the material, and faith is so clearly one of the main themes of the film that I can't imagine the movie without it. Aslan makes a direct reference to his identity in our world near the end of the film that surprised me, but again… the film earns it, and while the hesitancy made it almost unbearable in the first film, I find the overt nature of the religious subtext here to be somewhat touching.
Like I said… we have grown used to the fantastic on film, and it's so much "easier" these days that people may well overlook just how amazing the technical work in the film is. The denizens of Narnia have become almost second-nature at this point, and watching a giant Minotaur walk around as part of the crew is one of those things you just accept as part of the texture of the world after a while. All of the effects are seamlessly in service of making Narnia feel like a real place, and while I wouldn't say theres anything in the design of Narnia that feels brand-new, there is such a confidence to the execution of it this time that I'm inclined to forgive the lack of inspiration. David Arnold's score and Dante Spinotti's photography are both top-notch if not innovative, and that sort of solid, focused support is what makes "The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader" feel like such an effortless, easy entertainment.
It is sad that Disney dumped this franchise when they did, because it feels like this film hit a sweet spot that they've been searching for. This is one "Voyage" that offers real rewards to those who take it, and I commend Fox and Walden for sticking with it. Now the question is whether this creative focus can be carried into the rest of the series, and whether or not there's an audience out there willing to keep returning to this magical land. For those who are still aboard, "Dawn Treader" delivers.
"The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader" opens in theaters everywhere today.