C.S. Lewis began the third book in his Narnia series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” this way: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Nothing in the three inspiration-less films adapted from Lewis’ series ever rises to the wit of that simple line, though the latest, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” comes closest to the spirit of the original – arguably the most fun of Lewis’ seven Narnia tales.
But spirit is something that has been consistently lacking throughout this film franchise, which has now gone through two studios (previously Disney, now Fox) and two directors (previously Andrew Adamson, now Michael Apted).
The first, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” was sapped of life by mediocre digital creations; the second, “Prince Caspian,” was bloated by endless battle scenes.
Some of the movies’ failure might be laid at Lewis’ feet, too. While his Narnia books are filled with wonder and a lush, mapped world (not to mention brilliant titles), they were also less artful in their religious allegory.
After “Prince Caspian” failed to find a wider audience by reducing the Christian themes, “Dawn Treader” has restored them.
In the new film, the two eldest of the four Pevensie siblings aren’t around: Susan (Anna Popplewell) is in America and Peter (William Moseley) is away at school.
Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are staying with relatives in Cambridge, where they’re harassed by their annoying cousin, the unfortunately named Eustace (Will Poulter).
They are sucked back into Narnia (with Eustace in tow) by a painting hanging on the wall of the ship the Dawn Treader. It’s the film’s most magical scene; the painting first spits water in Lucy’s face, then begins to gush, flooding the room.
Before they know it, Caspian (Ben Barnes) is fishing them out of the sea and onto the Dawn Treader.
Here, the 3-D of “The Dawn Treader” is good, almost soaking the audience in the rush of water. But after a strong start, the effect seems to recede, as if the filmmakers (who added 3-D in post-production) sought to get by with merely a handful of scenes.
As the story goes, three years have passed in Narnia time since the last visit from the children, when they helped Caspian overthrow his evil Uncle Miraz from the throne. Peace has followed, and now Caspian is sailing to the Lone Islands in search of the missing seven Lords of Telmar.
With Australia adequately subbing for the ends of the earth, they embark on a trip of island-hopping en route to some kind of evil epicenter, where a mysterious green mist (looking very much like the black smoke of “Harry Potter”) lurks near Dark Island.
Along the way, the characters are variously tempted: Edmund by power, Lucy by beauty. Visions of their fears bring a cameo of Tilda Swinton’s icy White Witch.
On the Dawn Treader, they’re again joined by the swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg).
As in the previous installments, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” can’t help but feel like an assemblage of characters and scenes, not a flowing film.
It’s the best-looking of the Narnia films, but real emotion – and even simple motivation – is still lacking, particularly with Edmund and Caspian. Poulter’s Eustace is a bit better, as he undergoes a transformation from brat to hero while literally turning into a fire-breathing dragon.
The religiosity of these movies, produced by family-driven Walden Media, has been their most-discussed quality. “Dawn Treader” wears it most openly in a suggestion of heaven and a line from the Christlike lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) that, in the human world, “I have another name.”
But the Christian themes (which will go over the head of most young viewers just as they did young readers) aren’t what sinks the Narnia movies. It’s a lack of imagination – a sin, indeed.