Third in the Narnia series, Voyage of the Dawn Treader finds Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) stuck in wartime Britain with their obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). A painting of a magnificent ship comes to life and draws the bickering children back into the magical realm of Narnia where Lucy and Edmund are reunited with their old friend, Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard his splendid ship, the Dawn Treader. Alongside a brave crew of assorted creatures, Caspian sails in search of his six missing uncles, only to uncover an isle where slave traders sacrifice captives to a mysterious green mist. More adventures follow as Lucy encounters invisible beings and steals a page from a spell book belonging to a wise magician (Bille Brown), Edmund is tempted by visions of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), and Eustace gets more than he bargained for whilst trying to steal a dragon’s treasure. Eventually, our young heroes meet a beautiful star named Liliandil (Laura Brent) who points them to a great evil residing on Dark Island, where they will be tested by their greatest fears before Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) arrives once more.
It is sad and more than a little perplexing why the consistently improving Narnia sequels earn far less at the box office than the flawed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Following the exceptional Prince Caspian (2008), veteran Michael Apted takes the reins and delivers the most engaging Narnia adventure yet. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely cleverly tap into the anxieties felt by the now-adolescent Pevensie children, something absent from C.S. Lewis' original novel but which the movie's maturing audience must undoubtedly share. Like so many little girls growing up, Lucy is insecure about her looks, while Edmund is frustrated at finding himself at that halfway age, wise beyond years, but too young to be taken seriously. In Narnia he was a warrior-king, in England he is just another over-eager kid. Most teenage boys can empathise. Even the dashing Caspian (oddly ditching the Spanish accent he had last time) is riddled with self-doubts regarding his abilities as king.
With Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis revived one of the series most beloved characters, the original mighty mouse, Reepicheep (now voiced by Simon Pegg) who here surmises the story's theme: "We have nothing if not belief." More than an adventure, this is a voyage of self-discovery for our troubled young heroes. As Lewis shrewdly discerned, faith itself is not the answer, but provides a source of strength needed to pursue the answer. Eustace embodies Lewis' conception of the rational sceptic. By scrutinising the small details he has lost sight of the bigger picture, but his cleverness proves its worth. Like all Narnia stories, this story is one of redemption as Eustace reconnects with the kindness, tolerance and decency that are the core human values. Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes were always the true stars of the early Narnia films, but Son of Rambow (2008) star Will Poulter steals the show. Eustace's voiceover segues from hilarious to poignant and he makes a great double act with the feisty Reepicheep, the highlight being their slapstick duel wherein the swashbuckling rodent teaches the young upstart how to wield a blade.
Apted deftly handles the episodic narrative, balancing Lewis' theological musings with stirring fantasy action sequences and often amazing special effects, particularly during a superbly exciting battle between a fire-breathing dragon and some truly terrifying sea serpents. Working amidst the lustrous colours woven by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Apted's camerawork is more vivid than in previous instalments, drawing us into the world of Narnia via some evocative sights and sounds. The film closes with a pleasing dedication to the Narnia books artist Pauline Baynes as the end credits animate her iconic illustrations.