Which do you trust more: a gushing rave from a person who went into a film enthusiastic to begin with, or grudging respect from a skeptical viewer who had to be won over?
In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I found myself squarely in the second category. I pretty much hated the first Narnia film, thinking it tried too hard to turn a children’s story into an excuse for CGI battle scenes. I didn’t see the second film, and apparently I wasn’t alone.
On a surface level The Voyage of the Dawn Treader strikes me as the most adaptable of the seven Narnia books. My take is that the different books borrow from different literary traditions, and the epic sea voyage lends itself more readily to the episodic structure of a film that relies on production design rather than narrative depth for its primary impact.
Because the Narnia books really are aimed at kids (and constructed before the day when all kids’ works had to have inside jokes for grown ups) the actions are very simple, the conflicts simpler still. I want to be pretty like my sister. I keep getting taken for granted as a middle child. These are, to be sure, conflicts with primal resonance, but they are hard to develop over the course of a movie and what development there is comes in the form of repetition (in the reference to them). In this area, as in others, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader walks a thin line, balancing the addition of new material to broaden the appeal while staying true enough to the book to please those who are invested in it.
The key balancing act is, of course, staying true enough to the book’s explicit Christian roots to not alienate the core audience while trying to highlight and expand the story elements that might draw a wider, secular audience. Here, too, the film benefits from the fact that its source material is more susceptible to such shading. The faith content is about holding fast to lessons already learned rather than in allegorizing the story to teach the same lesson anew. Aslan is more imminent than present until the end, but when he shows up he’s more overt. (Daddy, what did Aslan mean when he said he is known by a different name in our world?) One could complain, I suppose, that the sermonizing at the end is not essential, but it really only gives you an excuse to knock the film only if you are predisposed to do so anyway.
My only real serious disappointment was the undragoning of Eustace, a scene which is visually represented as being a lot closer to the end of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast than the more painful (physically and emotionally) transformation in C.S. Lewis’s book. I would be more sympathetic to the notion that a more faithful adaption of this scene might be too intense for the younger audiences the film is mostly geared towards if we didn’t get fifteen minutes of a pretty nasty looking sea monster with big, sharp pointy teeth. The scene in question is the closest the Dawn Treader book has to a signature scene, so it’s a bit surprising they would take liberties here, but here, too, it doesn’t so much ruin the film you are given as give you an excuse to knock it if you are predisposed to do so anyway.
Am I repeating myself? The film is sort of like that. It’s not particularly complex, nor is it subtle. But it gets the job done. Unless, of course, you are predisposed to not like it anyway.