By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
It is time to close the book on the Narnia franchise, although four of C.S. Lewis' books — his apologies for decades of lacking Christian faith — remain to be adapted for the screen.
The third Chronicles of Narnia flick, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, could end the movie series on a better note than Prince Caspian would have two years ago. That film was so listless (except for the battles making mass killers out of children) that Disney dumped its rights to Lewis' books. And when was the last time the Mouse House ever gave up any chance to make a buck?
The duty now falls to Twentieth Century Fox, which does a commendable job of resuscitating the franchise for a more suitable farewell. Fox already has a fourth Narnia movie on the drawing board, but that seems like wishful thinking. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ends on a perfectly appropriate note, recapturing a childish sense of wonder and an earnest approach to Lewis' religious allegory.
This time, the older, duller Pevensie children are mostly kept out of the picture, leaving Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) to relatives' care in London while World War II cranks up around them. Both miss Narnia but especially Edmund, who is a warrior king in the netherworld yet too young to serve in the British army. Lucy misses hunky Caspian (Ben Barnes), in a schoolgirl crush sort of way.
But they're stuck in the real world with their bothersome cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), whose infatuation with science makes the stories of Narnia nothing but poppycock. It's Lewis' way of representing the schism between science and theology — proof vs. faith — that lives on. Nothing preachy, but the point isn't lost on a layperson.
Some of the most special effects in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader occur early, when a seascape painting in the children's room comes to life, washing them out to the middle of an ocean. Picked up by the Dawn Treader, captained of course by Caspian, Lucy and Edmund are hailed as royalty and happy to be back in their second home. Eustace isn't so sure, and the funniest bits in the movie usually involve Poulter's spot-on portrayal of annoyance tinged with fear.
Narnia is peaceful now, so the crew is heading somewhere else for action. Seven lords of the kingdom have disappeared, along with their magical swords. Caspian hopes to recover the swords and lay them at the table of Aslan the lion (voice of Liam Neeson), whom we know by now to be a stand-in for Jesus. The quest leads to scary times with a sea serpent, and Lucy and Edmund being tempted by a couple of deadly sins.
Eustace gets the cool crisis, getting transformed into a dragon for necessary lessons in loyalty, bravery and believing. The sword collecting is an excuse for plenty of juvenile eye candy — prankish gnomes, each hopping on one giant foot, for example — leading to the serious finale, when Aslan reappears to remind us that "in your world I'm known by another name." The clergymen who sat near me at a recent screening seemed to approve. I'll bet they know when a sermon is running too long. Fox will probably see the light.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.