Anyone not already enamored with C.S. Lewis’s children’s allegories, or even just morbidly curious as to what Michael Apted is doing in Narnia-land, need not bother with The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Though Fox’s answer to the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings franchises showed signs of progress in its last entry, Prince Caspian, the series’s writers have taken a serious leap backward with Voyage of the Dawn Treader by making the most overtly allegorical of the Narnia films also the clunkiest one yet. Prince Caspian’s main appeal was that it inelegantly but effectively expressed Lewis’s point about how having faith in action was more important than the actual actions in question. Contrived though its plot was, the key assumption in Prince Caspian was that it didn’t matter how the series’s kiddy protags learned their lessons—they would be taught somehow, someway.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, on the other hand, is infinitely more rigid in its insistence on making the Pevensie children grow up by waging magical battles with fantastic creatures. The faux-Odyssean trials that they face are also paradoxically so strained that they often look more arbitrary than thoughtful. The metaphorical menace that has besieged Narnia in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a pistachio-colored cloud of man-eating mist that a couple of Narnians describe immodestly as “pure evil.” The gaseous menace can only be destroyed after seven magical swords are gathered and the “darkness within” each of the Pevensies is quelled.
For Edmund (Skandar Keynes), this means confronting his fantasies of being in thrall to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch. Because these fantasies are practically libidinal in nature, they are neatly marginalized and instead translated as a lust for treasure. Lucy (Georgie Henley) must overcome her newfound sense of preteen vanity, which is at best an overblown extension of her curiosity from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy’s wish to look prettier in Voyage of the Dawn Treader wouldn’t be so inexplicable if it actually seemed like an organic development of that character trait. Instead, the film’s inept coalition of writers has forced her to transform from a pre-sexual mouse to a more hormonal version of Veruca Salt.
Whiny newcomer Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), the latest child warrior to take up the by-now rote “I have no faith in talking rats and minotaurs” role, is tried for his agnosticism. This instant, no-stakes challenge is mostly irritating just because Eustace literally just showed up in the series. When Eustace is turned into a dragon to prove how real Narnia is, it doesn’t feel like a way of exploring the character’s suppressed interest in myths; it just seems like another way to pass the time and confirm that the film’s world is less portentous than it is constantly trying to impress on its viewers.
The rest of the film’s main protagonists, all native Narnians, mostly just bob along in Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s half-assed, mostly unconvincing stab at lending the series’s narrative an Odyssean heft. There’s no real tension to the film because only the Pevensie kids are tested, reducing the story to an imaginary trial by fire. These unreal characters make perfunctory risks, which don’t feel like no risks at all, and gain everything for it: Caspian (Ben Barnes) is still a flawless martyr that gets shit done and Reepacheep (now voiced by Simon Pegg), the brave little talking rat, is still living proof that the meek shall inherit the metaphorical earth. Caspian and Reepacheep prove themselves through their actions continually but are never punished for taking those risks. No matter how old the Pevensies get, their fairy-tale friends will forever mark them as children trying vainly to prove themselves in a world they made. Nothing is really sacrificed and everything is still just make-believe.