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When it comes to the future of The Chronicles of Narnia, the pressure is on for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (rated PG for a few mildly frightening scenes). If it delivers, The Silver Chair will reach theaters in due time. If it doesn't, say goodbye to C.S. Lewis' wonderland, cinematically speaking anyway. The good news for those who are clamoring to see the rest of the series on the big screen-Walden's swing this time around should earn it another turn at bat.
For those who know and love the books (and even for those who don't), the first third of the movie is pitch-perfect. Perfect in the way Peter Jackson's rendering of The Shire and Gollum were perfect. It begins with Will Poulter as the smarmy, pestilential cousin of the Pevensies, Eustace.
Poulter owns the character like an old-time stage actor. His body language is starched, his speech affected, and his mannerisms irritating. In short, he is exactly what one would expect from someone named Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Even more impressive is Poulter's portrayal of Eustace's redemption. As believable as he is before the lion, Aslan (Liam Neeson), peels away his dead, gnarled shell, he is equally authentic in his transformation into a new creation with a tender heart. Simon Pegg, voicing the valiant mouse Reepicheep, is another phenomenal addition who is easily on par with all the great character actors peopling Harry Potter's world.
As a newcomer to the series, director Michael Apted (Amazing Grace) creates a Narnia that feels romantic and alive. From Eustace, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy's (Georgie Henley) swim through a painting, to the appearance of the ship, to the merry banter of its inhabitants, we believe in this fantastical world. And we continue doing so right up until the point the crew leaves the first of the Lone Islands. From there, the waters get a little choppy.
As the Dawn Treader sails on to the Island of the Voices where Lucy discovers a magician's spell book and meets the Dufflepuds (yes, Virginia, there are Dufflepuds. And they too are perfect), a plot line involving evil green smoke breaks some of the enchantment.
I don't necessarily have an argument with trying to incorporate a more cohesive story line into Dawn Treader. The novel's episodic structure of sailing from one island to another just for the sake of discovering what happened to a group of long-lost lords lacks a certain tension. But instead of developing something uniquely befitting Lewis' creation, the screenwriters have settled for Lost-lite. The green mist that tempts each according to his greatest weakness, the seven swords that must be assembled to destroy it-it's all rather generically mystical. And it comes off particularly lame compared to the still-fresh subplot of Eustace's dragoning and un-dragoning and his developing friendship with Reepicheep.
Lewis had the wisdom to impart morals with a sense of wit and depth. This green mist has neither. Thematically, nothing about it conflicts with the novel's Christian subtext, but it feels like a didactic tack-on, which, of course, is exactly what it is.
The new material works best for Lucy, whose desire for beauty is extrapolated and magnified from a small incident in the book. It's a persistent and common enough sin for the ladies that we have no trouble sympathizing with her struggle. Edmund's temptation to wrest power from Caspian, however, feels intrusive and redundant. Didn't we tread this same ground with Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Peter in Prince Caspian? Are there any boys in Narnia who don't secretly want to be king?
Fortunately, by the time we sail into the sweet waters of Aslan's country, things are back on track, and Christian audiences may be stunned and grateful to see how the filmmakers reveal the true nature of the great lion. His direct-from-Lewis explanation that he is in our world too and we must learn to know him by another name will be like a spring in the desert for thoughtful parents whose time is often spent in theaters enduring cheap bathroom jokes and even cheaper believe-in-yourself messages. And it certainly makes Walden worthy of helming Narnia into the future.
For more on the film, see "Treading carefully."