It's been about 15 years since I read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and about two since I listened to the audio drama versions produced by Focus Radio Theater. So I'm hardly a purist and if you're looking for a review that will compare the books to the movies, these aren't the droids you're looking for.
However, I am a big fan of the fantasy genre and love examining movies for relevant philosophical/theological themes. So naturally I've been looking forward to seeing The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader.
The story picks up a couple of years after Edmund and Lucy return from their adventure in Prince Caspian. They are now in the care of their Uncle and are forced to spend time with their snobby cousin, Eustace, who naturally thinks that Narnia is make-believe nonsense. Soon, all three children are pulled into the magical world for another adventure and we get to watch them struggle with temptation and grow in character as the movie progresses.
This movie continues the standard of high quality production we've come to expect from the franchise and one wouldn't even notice that the franchise has moved from Disney to Fox studios. The sets and props are wonderfully detailed. The world is very cool to look at and one I would love to spend time in. The visual effects are on par with most any other big budget movie of the same type. Overall, the visual presentation of this movie helps bring a slightly darker tone to the material, which could otherwise seem pretty non-threatening and a little too safe.
Maybe Too Safe?
The movie has a slightly lighter feel to it than Prince Caspian, despite some spooky imagery now and then. Unlike Harry Potter, this franchise seems to be keeping a consistent tone rather than becoming progressively darker or more edgy. For many who hope to raise future fantasy fanatics, this movie, like those before it, will probably serve as a nice early step before moving on to Harry Potter and eventually The Lord Of The Rings. Fans of darker, more intense fantasy flicks will likely find this too "safe" most of the time.
Further comparisons to the Potter flicks are inevitable as we look at how the young actors portraying Lucy and Edmund progress as actors. In general, their skill as performers is growing less noticeably when compared to the leads in the Potter films. If they have been simply cooling their heels between these pictures, rather than taking classes and aiming to improve their craft, I would not be surprised. Still they turn out acceptable performances that don't distract from the story, given the already lighter nature of this material.
Story Is a Let-Down
The story is a bit of a letdown this time through. The first two movies clearly had all of Narnia at stake. This is more of an isolated quest movie with little immediate threat to all of Narnia clearly presented. So in general, the emotional intensity is much less than the first two films.
The story is also hindered by the "fetch quest" format. For those non-gamers out there, this basically means that the story is taken up by multiple mini-quests to collect 7 of the same item in various locations in order to advance the main plot. A single, central story is somewhat absent, instead making episodic quests the focus, and the moral lessons built into each one.
Look for It or You'll Miss It
There are a few metaphors and morals in this story that may spark conversation if you're looking for it. But they are not strongly pronounced and for the most part, easily missed.
Contentment with self-image and self-worth is certainly a theme. As is temptation in general. Near the end of the story, a metaphor for Heaven is strongly presented, though based on the dialogue, one could argue that entrance to this "heaven" is based on personal character, rather than loyalty to Aslan. (Something C.S. Lewis probably did not intend.) And though you might miss it if you zone out for a line or two, there is a great metaphor about being changed by Christ (Aslan). Jesus can take a life that is monstrous in appearance and character and drastically change it for the better. But this kind of transformation often comes with "a good kind of pain" (as Eustace says) as the monstrous layers are stripped away.
What Is Aslan's Name?
What I found very interesting was the inclusion of a few lines near the end that implicitly validate the truth claims of Christianity in the real world. When asked if they will see him again, Aslan tells the children that in their world he has another name, and that they were brought to Narnia so that, by knowing him a little there, they could know him even better in their world.
This leaves us with the question of what Aslan's name is in the real world, requiring us to notice the numerous metaphors and parallels in these stories to find the answer. In the films alone, one need only look as far as The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe for the obvious answer.
A good, light, fantasy flick that young families will enjoy together and veteran genre fans will likely find a bit tame, with a few things worth talking about if you're in the mood and looking for them.
The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.