Disney took up C.S. Lewis' seven-volume (!) Chronicles of Narnia project in the giddy post-Lord of the Rings atmosphere. But after failing to return the requisite billions, this third adaptation comes underwritten by a new studio, 20th Century Fox, and with a new director, Michael Apted, working from one of the best-loved of Lewis' books.
In contrast to the Blitz opening The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, RAF planes now control British airspace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The war has ground on, and Edmund and Lucy (Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley), the two youngest Pevensie children, are considerably grown up, separated from their siblings and sequestered with an aunt in Cambridge, where they share a house with awful cousin Eustace Clarence Scrubb (Will Poulter, with a piggy nose and "What's that smell?" expression), who mocks their talk of make-believe Narnia.
Scarcely has the scene been set when an ajar portal between worlds gobbles up the children. Eustace's unbelief washes away as they surface in aquamarine waters off the bow of the Narnian navy's good ship, Dawn Treader. Aboard, Edmund and Lucy are reunited with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Reepicheep, the ankle-gouging mouse-musketeer (now voiced by Simon Pegg), to the good cheer of all except Eustace, who sets about doing his best impression of insufferable Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous.
The Treader is plotting a course through the unknown Eastern Seas to World's End, on a mission to collect seven swords from seven lords on who-knows-how-many islands. This is all to stop malevolent forces emanating from the "Dark Isle," a noxious cloud that has been swallowing up Narnian subjects. This threat is the screenwriters' invention — Lewis' kings and queens need no more reason to go questing than a bird to sing — as is the film's battle-royal conclusion, though there is considerably less bombast added than might be expected, and some of the fuddling with the text is actually to the film's credit: The minor point Lewis made of Lucy's covetousness of her elder sister's beauty becomes the premise for two absorbingly imagined scenes of tempted vanity.
The Narnia films have each come with a distinct visual identity: ice thawing into vivid, heraldic colors in Wardrobe; the gloom of 16th-century Spanish court in Prince Caspian. Much of the same production design crew returns on Dawn Treader, outfitting the Viking longship in art nouveau trappings, including curvilinear handrails and stained-glass forecastle windows that survive a sea monster. It's good to see the spirit of English craftsmanship alive, even if applied to ephemeral effects.
The great cameraman Dante Spinotti shot Dawn Treader, and he must share credit with a legion of technicians for the sumptuousness of this episode, for panoramic shots that take in cosmos and glittering sea, the cliffs of Paradise and the headlands of Hell. A faerie, luminous and curling with dry-ice smoke, presenting a lapidary glow-in-the-dark feast table, is an image Maxfield Parrish might not be ashamed of. Likewise the landing boat parting a sea of lilies — anyone afraid to find Lewis' faith in their popcorn will be appalled at what lies beyond, but you really should calm down. Dawn Treader will be projected in 3-D, which didn't seem to add anything gobsmacking aside from glittery air bubbles in some striking underwater shots.
At just under two hours, Dawn Treader is the shortest Narnia film, to the point of feeling sometimes hasty and overextended — the relationships don't quite flourish at its keeping-to-a-schedule clip, with the tears and travails of a CGI dragon upstaging the human element. Apted seems too often to think like an old-hand action director and not enough like the 12-year-old boy who probably read Lewis' book. To enter Narnia, to really go giddy with the bright, laughing promise of a quest, a young viewer with no convenient magic portal of his own needs characters to bring him along. This is the difference between a classic and a successful franchise reboot.