Harry Potter’s imminent departure from movie screens is no doubt one of the reasons for Narnia’s continued survival. Studios have been desperately searching for the next major money-spinning fantasy franchise but drawn blanks on Percy Jackson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Golden Compass and no doubt others I’ve forgotten about. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series remains the best loved and known of all the mooted replacements, with the added possibility of its stories’ religious subtexts attracting the lucrative church-faring market. Despite diminishing returns for Prince Caspian following the success of series opener The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Fox picked up Dawn Treader where Disney got cold feet.
Yet Narnia’s literary success is somewhat deceptive. The first book has always been by far the best known, meaning that every subsequent entry is playing catch-up to feel as important. By contrast, the Harry Potter books peaked somewhere around the latter half of the series, but then had a grand finale spectacular enough to raise suspicions that Rowling wrote it with the cinema in mind anyway. Unlike each Potter entry, every book in the Narnia series feels very different from its precedent. There is not even a single central hero running throughout, arguably apart from Aslan (whose appearances are memorable but scant), with Lewis regularly swapping his characters over to fit the needs of the latest adventure. In the space of seven books, the series goes from having four children discovering a magical world in the back of a wardrobe to a devil-monkey dressing up a donkey as the lion-Jesus. Whereas Potter is about the boy, Narnia is about the world. What makes for the greatest of bed-time stories is a significant obstacle to attracting regular crowds into a cinema, as the Narnia brand has little value in informing people of the kind of experience they can expect.
For one thing, Dawn Treader should have been released in the summer. Lion, Witch & Wardrobe was perfect for this time of year, all full of snow and Santa cameos, but both this and Caspian are set in far more temperate seasons. If nothing else, at least Treader‘s sea-faring story engages the imagination more than Caspian‘s strong focus on battles and wronged princes, which on-screen played like a Lord of the Rings-lite. We see a lot more of Lewis’ world in Treader, thus playing to the series’ aforementioned strengths and keeping the tone light. The downside is that Lewis’ book was structured episodically rather than as an unfolding narrative mystery. Attempts to rectify this without scarring the book’s integrity has resulted in the implementation of a fetch-quest for seven swords from seven lords, which proves to be every bit as flimsy a story-telling conceit as it sounds. It does give the characters a more clearly defined goal than “sail east”, but the reasons for this goal needing to be fulfilled go mostly unexplained. If you’re the sort of cinemagoer who likes everything neatly tied up, Treader will be enormously frustrating.
Anyone happy enough to sit back and submerge into the world without such pithy concerns as continuity will on the other hand find much to enjoy. This is a children’s film, aiming for a younger market than the likes of Potter or even Percy Jackson, and while its lack of exposition might make for a flimsy story from an adult perspective, it keeps the pace brisk enough that such quibbles are easily overlooked and clocking in a running time of under two hours. Instead, the focus is on getting right the things that will matter most to its audience. Character progression, though broad, is well paced and deals with the sorts of concerns that children might legitimately be worried about: Lucy’s fall to temptation makes for an evocatively creepy sequence emphasizing the importance of considering the consequences of one’s actions whilst remaining confident in yourself and your place in the world. The characters are drawn as types rather than individuals, but they’re types that younger viewers will either easily empathise with (the Pevensie children) or admire (Caspian, who gained an English accent in the off-screen years since becoming King). The Zorro-esque mouse Reepicheep fulfils the adorable creature quotient and engages in some enjoyable vocal sparring with cast newcomer Will Poulter’s snotbag Tory boy Eustace Scrubbs, who is by far the best of the child actors and has an hilarious style of outraged line delivery.
Veteran director Michael Apted shoots with assurance, giving the action some urgency and peril without resorting to the dreaded shaky-cam. With the actual story so marginal, the visual effects do most of the heavy lifting and the CGI is by far the best that the series has had to offer so far, despite still not being able to produce a convincing lion (and the 3D retrofitting is as intrusive as ever). At times it can feel like each new story chapter is there for no other reason than to introduce another special effect, but when they’re this much fun it hardly matters. If I were ten years old, this might be the greatest film I’d ever seen: it has a talking lion, terrifying sea-serpents (a worthily thrilling climactic battle sequence), a big red dragon and invisible one-footed dwarves living in a garden of testicle-shaped hedges.
Fans of the novel might balk at the changes (some of the foreshadowing of later stories is neat though) and hardcore atheists at the Christian undertones – though only the best values of belief are emphasized – but if you can enjoy the film for what it is and engage with its aim of exciting young imaginations rather than satiating the critical faculties of adults, Narnia is an engaging place to spend an afternoon. A little faith goes a long way.