Review of Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The popularity of fantasy in contemporary cinema is an interesting phenomenon: the use of sensational, highly entertaining film content to deliver storylines representing largely positive values and even religious themes. In that regard, such films truly are modern fairy tales.

The Narnia series of films exemplify this strategy. Full of fantastic creatures, exotic settings, and grand drama, the films convey religious and moral themes without becoming excessively didactic or having the ideas overwhelm the films’ entertainment value.

The Narnia books were written by C. S. Lewis, an Oxford don and Christian apologist who enjoyed fairy tales, fantasies, and other romances and wrote about their meanings with great sophistication. (For many years, he was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien.) Lewis also wrote other excellent fiction aimed at adults, such as his science fiction books.

Of the three Narnia tales adapted to film thus far, I enjoyed the current one the most. Directed competently by Michael Apted, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a good, solid fairy tale. Two children who have been to Narnia before (and have been elevated to Narnian royalty) are magically transported to a ship, the Dawn Treader, sailing in Narnia, by way of a painting. There they meet their friend Caspian, the young king of Narnia. All seems to be peaceful, but soon it becomes apparent that there is a distant island from which evil is emanating. To defeat this new outburst of evil, the swords of the seven lost lords must be recovered and laid upon the table of Aslan, a lion and the god of Narnia.

This Lord of the Rings-style quest is spiced up by a fair amount of humor, especially at the expense of a third child, Eustace Scrubb (well-acted by Will Poulter), who is making his first visit to Narnia and is a crude empiricist. It is this satirical humor, I suppose, that will have the most appeal for the adults in the audience.

The humor and spectacle ensure that the entertainment value of the adventure is not quite overwhelmed by the filmmakers’ desire to convey ideas, and the latter tend to be at least as much generally (and healthily) moral as they are allegorically Christian. This seems to have been a conscious choice of the filmmakers, and it certainly fits with Lewis’s original conception for the books, which was that they were to entertain and delight first while conveying the ideas painlessly.

In this film, for example, there is no mention of resurrection, and little calling upon Aslan (the Jesus figure) for assistance. There is a fair amount of talk about faith, but those discussions are central to the characters’ concerns and hence aesthetically justified.

The emphasis upon morality makes the tale as much about defeating the darkness within the individual as about the darkness outside, as one character, the wizard Coriakin, puts it. Coriakin, in fact, warns that as long as the seven swords have not been laid on Aslan’s table, evil has the advantage and they will be tempted in various ways. Thus they have to search for the swords while resisting the various temptations that assault them.

Although the film is geared toward children, it will appeal to older folk as well. To be sure, the closest it comes to sophistication (apart from some of the humor) is the rather brief portrayal of the evil White Witch as both erotic and cold. (I hasten to add that the eroticism is subtle and does not make the film in the least inappropriate for children.) It’s not nearly as smart and thought-provoking as Lewis’s book (and vanishingly few films are): in ensuring the film would appeal to children, the filmmakers seem to assume that young people are much less perceptive than they really are. That’s a pity, but it doesn’t stand in the way of the film’s entertainment value.

In all, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an engaging fairy tale aimed at children and unabashedly conveying religious and moral meanings. Rather like what Lewis would probably have wanted it to be.