The problem with adapting C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader to film is that it’s a relatively shapeless book, an episodic quest inspired by traditional Irish fables, but lacking the through-line of Lewis’ other six books about the magical land of Narnia. Director Michael Apted and his screenwriting team solve this problem by grafting a videogame quest-plot onto the story. In The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, the characters have to find seven lost magical swords and place them on a magical table to save the world from the generically evil threat of Dark Island. The plot additions give the story some stakes and a heaping helping of extra conflict, but they’re poorly planned, described, and detailed. They essentially replace the book’s blank spaces with gaping plot holes and laughable clichés.
The bland cast from the first two entries, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, return in Dawn Treader, as siblings Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes are again drawn into Narnia, along with their huffy, arrogant cousin Will Poulter. They’re quickly roped into the sword-quest via a sea voyage laden with special effects, slapstick, and swordplay. Where the first two installments seemed to be trying for a training-wheels version of the Lord Of The Rings movies, this installment is more junior-grade Pirates Of The Caribbean, with cheaper special effects and a wholesome edge rather than a ribald one. The story bounces from island to island and event to event with a sense of humor, but no sense of flow or drama except during the fight sequences.
The problem is largely that Dawn Treader approaches fantasy as if the details don’t matter—for instance, what Dark Island is, why it kidnaps generic islanders, why it makes nightmares real (enabling a “Don’t think about your fears, or they’ll become real” scene straight out of Ghostbusters), or what the magic swords have to do with anything. It’s apparently enough that there’s a clearly defined goal, some brave people pointed toward it, some CGI monsters to spice things up, and some inessential-but-serviceable 3-D for immersion’s sake. But that approach feels depressingly lazy. The story is based in Lewis’ fervent Christian beliefs, but this adaptation feels mighty soulless.