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Perfunctory perfectly describes every aspect of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, from the by-the-numbers script and lackluster direction to uniformly uninspired performances. The lure of 3D no doubt will spike box-office takings in the short term. But Disney saw the writing on the wall and decamped after global grosses dropped, first to second film, from $745 million to $420 million, the latter a figure Fox no doubt would be relieved to achieve given the yawny nature of this journey.
It’s even possible that Lewis purists might be annoyed with this adaptation, given the extensive liberties that have been taken to alleviate the repetitiveness of the odyssey and to provide more excuses for elaborate and varied visual effects. But to a series convert or not, the signal flaw in the storytelling here is that everything that happens seems entirely arbitrary; characters come and go and make decisions for no evident reasons, platitudes rather than credible motivations are provided for behavior, and no scenes are built up to or developed for more than a moment. The result is a film far choppier than the seas traversed by the titular vessel, a dragon-headed craft so spiffy and freshly painted that it could be installed in a theme park tomorrow.
What is arguably the best visual effect comes very near the outset. With their two older siblings, Peter and Susan, having graduated from Narnia duty, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley) and their bratty pubescent cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter), peer at a painting of the ship and suddenly are inundated with water, which conveys them to their magical world. Conveniently picked up by Caspian (Ben Barnes, returning from the most recent film), the kids learn that, unlike England, which is in the thick of World War II, Narnia is currently at peace. But that state of affairs won’t do for a swashbuckling adventure, so a distant threat is conjured that requires them to visit several islands, gather the seven swords of the missing Lords of Telmar and place them on the lion Aslan’s dinner table so all will not be lost.
Granted, great fiction has blossomed from much less, but not this time. Much of the early-going is devoted to the incessant complaining of the singularly unamusing Eustace, who for some reason attracts the undivided attention of rodent swordsman Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). As the crew looks for swords on small islands, fights entirely bloodless battles with slave traders, is enveloped by emerald mist on the sea and is warned by a magician about what awaits them on Dark Island, “a place where evil lurks” (can you imagine?), Edmund and Caspian man up while Lucy worries about becoming a woman and not being as beautiful as her older sister.
For his part, Eustace, in the film’s other notable visual effect, is transformed into a winged golden dragon, which represents a major improvement on his original incarnation; just as it’s hard to figure why Dorothy would want to go back to Kansas after all the fun she’s had in Oz, it’s hard to believe Eustace would rather return to being a snot-nosed kid rather than flying around breathing fire on whomever he so chooses. But so be it.
In brief reminders of better days, Tilda Swinton materializes out of thin air a couple of times to whisper enticements to Edmund, and Liam Neeson’s imposing vocals for Aslan dominate the denouement.
Michael Apted, recruited to replace Andrew Adamson in the director’s chair, just goes through the motions here and does an especially listless job with the action scenes, in which extras just stand around watching like supers in a stage opera. The film’s squeaky-clean look extends even to the sailors; seafarers haven’t worn costumes this tidy since the original productions of The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers.
The film opened commercially Dec. 2 in Australia.
Opens: Friday, Dec. 10 (Fox)
Production: Fox 2000, Walden Media
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton
Voices: Liam Neeson, Simon Pegg
Director: Michael Apted
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni, based on the book by C.S. Lewis
Producers: Mark Johnson, Andrew Adamson, Philip Steuer
Executive producers: Douglas Gresham, Perry Moore
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Barry Robison
Costume designer: Isis Mussenden
Editor: Rick Shaine
Music: David Arnold
Visual effects supervisor: Angus Bickerton
Rated PG 116 minutes
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