Here's a little secret: most 3-D movies aren't in 3-D. I don't mean that they were shot in the old 2-D process and simulated into stereoptic form in post-production. I mean that some, if not most, scenes in movies like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans and the forthcoming TRON: Legacy are not shown in 3-D. A good deal of the time while watching the new Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you can remove your eye-test specs and see the action with perfect clarity greater clarity, certainly, than if you wore the goggles, since they also severely reduce the brightness of the screen. The movies look better, and you avoid eyestrain. You're welcome for that little tip.
Another way to avoid ocular distress is to skip Dawn Treader, the big-screen adaptation of the third book in C.S. Lewis' seven-volume fantasy series about some English children who escape from their midcentury rural reality into a parallel universe. The film is not objectionable, just perfunctory a decorous succession of adventure clichés with a cast of performers who should seek treatment for charisma deficiency. Dawn Treader, the name of the ship in the story, should here be rechristened Yawn Treader. If this movie were a bedtime book, the wee ones would be asleep by page two.
The first two books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, became Disney live-action movies in 2005 and 2008. The two films earned nearly $1.2 billion at the worldwide box office, but extravagant costs prodded Disney to ditch the franchise. Fox assumed distribution, and the budget was cut from $225 million for Caspian to about $150 million for Dawn Treader. The studio's scheme is that profits will come from American evangelicals. Lewis, an indifferent believer in his youth, returned staunchly to the Church of England in his thirties; the Narnia tales are infused with Christian metaphors (he rejected the word allegory), such as the Jesus-like lion Aslan. Fox has been hoping the faith-based community might buttress the usual fantasy-film demographic of kids and idle teens. Hollywood is not a pious town, but Fox executives are praying for a box-office miracle by Sunday.
In the first films, the four Pevensie children slipped through a closet into Narnia, battled the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and met Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), whom they helped reclaim the kingdom's throne from the malefic Miraz. The portal this time is a sea painting, which overflows its frame and carries the two younger Pevensies, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), out to the Dawn Treader along with their outstandingly crabby cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). Caspian, having becalmed most of Narnia, is bound to locate seven lords banished during Miraz's reign. The prince and his talking-mouse friend Reepicheep (good voice job by Simon Pegg) take the children on this tropical cruise to various islands, where they encounter creatures as generic as they are eccentric, and where the balky Eustace is transformed into a dragon a big improvement in his power, usefulness and disposition.
The director, Michael Apted, has just the right c.v. for this job. He's helmed big-budget adventures (the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough) and an English drama about religion (Amazing Grace). Most pertinently, for a film about and for kids, Apted is the godfatherly force behind the Seven Up TV documentary series, which began in 1964 as a group portrait of seven-year-old schoolchildren and has revisited them, as they've grown up and older, every seven years since. (Next year he should be convening the gang for a 56 Up.) What he doesn't impart in Dawn Treader is any dramatic momentum. With each new island visited, the story starts from scratch, expends its energy and moves on. Midway through, the viewer feels like Sisyphus.
Good actors would help. Swinton, that wild queen of indie films, lent a sense of regal danger to Wardrobe and Caspian, but she's on screen here for just a few seconds, and neither the handsomely Keanuesque but tepid Barnes nor any of the supporting adult actors can fill her pumps. Henley and Keynes, the picture's two young stars, are no more prepossessing than they were in the earlier episodes. That's partly a function of their roles well-behaved children who haven't been asked to rise to fury or holiday in comedy but also of the performers' vagueness. The newcomer, Poulter, has a bit more fun being horrid, though horrid is all he gets to be for the film's first hour. Poulter could ripen into a commanding actor; we'll see, if there are further Narnia films, since Eustace is the hero of two later books.
As for the religious messages that are supposed to reap a vast audiences of Christian customers, they're like the Waldos of Martin Handford's books: you wouldn't know they were there unless you were told to find them. Oh, there's a poem about one island's creatures, the Dufflepuds, who have been made invisible, "Like the 'h' in psychology... the truth in theology." The holy lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) mixes the gentle wisdom of Jesus with the Old Testament God's gravitas; but so do Gandalf and Dumbledore from secular literature. And when you hear the line, "We have nothing if not belief," you are forgiven if you think of Peter Pan's Tinker Bell, who required the faith of the little ones to restore her to life.
For children, the first stories they are read can have the impact of religious experiences. They lift kids out of the material world into a realm where their fictional surrogates, the young heroes, face mortal peril and conquer it; where fallible humans can achieve godlike powers and status; where the authorial gods see that good is rewarded and evil punished. But the telling of these tales demands a fervor, a fever, to propel the narrative and enrapture the listener. In the Dawn Treader, that divine urgency is missing. Young people go on a sea trip and stuff happens, in fake 3-D. That's nothing for audiences, devout or Narniagnostic, to believe in.