Movies: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader **
(PG, GENERAL RELEASE)
The third instalment of the Narnia film franchise arrives in your multiplex on foot of a troubled production history that involved a change of studio, a budget cut so savage it might have been cooked up by Brian Lenihan and a release delay that suggested to some it wasn't going to come out at all.
The problem, readers, was this: the last Narnia film, Prince Caspian, cost $250m to make and barely took in twice that at the box office. Unimpressed, Disney decided to back out of this one, at which point 20th Century Fox stepped into the breach, but not without IMF-style provisos.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, then, has been a compromised project from the start, and the comparatively modest $140m budget may account for its sometimes slipshod special effects.
Time, at any rate, has marched on, and Peter and Susan Pevensie are all grown-up and spending a summer in America. Their younger siblings, Edmund and Lucy, have been sent to stay with an odious cousin called Eustace Scrubb, and are none too happy about it.
Eustace is an oily little tick who pours scorn on their stories of a magical land and resents the Pevensies' disruption of his well-ordered little world. Poor old Eustace is in for a shock, however, because one day when he and Edmund are fighting, a seascape painting on the wall begins to move and sway before spilling brine into their bedroom. It's a portal to Narnia and, after bobbing to the surface of a choppy sea, Edmund, Lucy and a totally bewildered Eustace are hauled aboard a Narnian ship called The Dawn Treader.
On it, they find their old friend Prince Caspian, who has set sail with a group of loyal associates to find seven Narnian lords who were banished years before by Caspian's despotic uncle, Miraz. Those lords all bore magical swords that, when together, maintained the balance of good in the world, but now that they've been sundered dark forces are massing to threaten the kingdom of Narnia.
Caspian, Edmund, Lucy, a reluctant Eustace and a verbose and exceedingly irritating giant mouse called Reepicheep set out towards a series of mysterious islands that contain great danger but also, possibly, the missing swords. The all-powerful lion Aslan makes more than one appearance, but so does the shrewish face of Jadis, the supposedly extinct White Witch.
Directed by veteran British film-maker Michael Apted, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is probably the most action-packed Narnia instalment to date, and sets off at a fairly brisk lick. After being abducted by slave traders, Edmund, Lucy and co confront dragons, sea monsters, talking stars and an insidious green mist on their way to saving Narnia once again, and all of this is briskly if blandly expounded.
The film's difficulties stem in part from a plot that might be the weakest of CS Lewis's seven Narnia stories, but mainly from the problematic use -- and overuse -- of CGI. There's a way of successfully blending computer generated images with live action, but this isn't it, and time and again the antics of garish CGI creatures often undermine the flow and coherence of the story. Much of the time The Voyage of the Dawn Treader looks like a cartoon without enjoying the free-flowing advantages of that form.
Like Tolkien, Lewis was not big on jokes, and the few this screenplay adds wouldn't have you helplessly clutching your sides either. And as with the other two Narnia films, a general stiffness afflicts the cast, with the honourable exception of Will Poulter (of Son of Rambow), whose whining Eustace is the only vividly rounded character in the film.
Eustace moves centre stage in the next Narnia episode, The Silver Chair, so we may be seeing more of Master Poulter -- if the film gets made.