The young king sails into unknown waters seeking seven lords, loyal men driven into perpetual exile by a villainous usurper. To accomplish the mission, the king has to journey to the very edge of the world, surviving deadly perils and witnessing miracles.
That's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as C. S. Lewis wrote it. But that's not the story you'll be seeing on the screen.
Maybe, if you've never read the book, or seen the BBC-TV rendition of the story, you'll be perfectly satisfied with this film. It opened strong at the box office, it has a fine cast, all the special effects you could desire-and it's in 3-D, too.
In spite of all these things going for it, Dawn Treader misses the mark. By how much, the audience will decide.
Old Errors Out, New Errors In
What went wrong?
The second movie in this series, Prince Caspian, was a disappointment. It had some major problems, which have been corrected.
Ben Barnes returns as Caspian, but a very different Caspian. Prince Caspian should have been introduced to us as an idealistic boy in his early teens, but somebody in charge of such things in Movie No. 2 decided to present him to us as some kind of smoldering hunk, a Narnian Fabio. This was so they could hint at a romance between Caspian and Queen Susan. Yick.
In Dawn Treader, even though he now sports a beard, Barnes gives us a younger, fresher, more innocent Caspian, thus proving that the foolishness in Movie No. 2 was not his fault (and also proving he's a marvelous actor).
Georgie Henley returns as Queen Lucy, the youngest and most faithful of the Pevensie children from our own world, the first of her siblings to discover Narnia. She's perfect in the part, just perfect. Skander Keynes is back as her brother, King Edmund. He wasn't given much scope in Movie No. 2, but in this outing he comes into his own.
Will Poulter joins the cast as Lucy and Edmund's cousin, Eustace. This character is supposed to start out as an obnoxious little prig whose truer, better self is brought out by the grace of God and by his experiences on the voyage. Despite being lumbered with some over-the-top dialogue, young Poulter is terrific. His body language has to be seen to be believed.
Reepicheep, the mouse version of Errol Flynn, is computer-generated. Thankfully, the makers of Movie No. 3 relieved him of the inane dialogue he spouted in No. 2.
The silliness that marred Prince Caspian has been taken out of the sequel. We also get magic swords, a sea-monster, a dragon, sword-fights, a book of magic spells and whatnot, all of it convincingly executed on screen and backed up by excellent performances. So what's not to like?
Dumping the Story
The problem with this movie is that its makers jettisoned most of C. S. Lewis' original story-line and substituted one of their own. We must lay this error at the door of Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, who is one of the film's executive producers and supposedly has creative control of the enterprise. At least that's what he says in interview after interview.
"Jack [C. S. Lewis' nickname] had some degree of help because while I think Jack was the person who wrote all these stories down, I'm convinced the Holy Spirit of God was the author of them..."
Was the Holy Spirit nodding when He authored The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Was the story so inadequate that it had to be replaced?
We do understand that sometimes changes have to be made because not everything in a book translates to the screen. But here we can see no reason for wholesale changes in the story! The writers kept some of the incidents belonging to the original, but mixed them up and stuffed them into a whole new plot. And then, when I thought the movie was over because the new story-line demanded it, they switched over to the original story as if they didn't know how to finish the film, otherwise. That last episode is a necessary part of Lewis' story, but here it seems just tacked on for want of anything better.
Why did Douglas Gresham do this, or allow it to be done?
We want these Narnia films to be successful, not as the world defines success, but as C. S. Lewis himself would have defined it. These films succeed if they draw their audience to Jesus Christ, or at least make viewers' hearts more receptive to the Gospel. Even drawing people to the Narnia books would be a success. It's necessary for the films to be profitable so that they can continue to be made, but the real business at hand is the care and nourishment of souls. That's why Lewis wrote the books.
In the Narnian scheme of things, Aslan, the great lion, is Jesus Christ. If you can think of anyone else who made the world, died to redeem sinners, rose from the dead, and is the king of kings, you have probably misunderstood something important.
In all the Narnia tales, Aslan is the mainspring of the action. He calls the children into Narnia, gives them missions to perform, counsels and disciples them, and when the time is right, sends them home again.
We didn't have an Aslan problem in Movie No. 1, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; but Aslan was very much downplayed in Movie No. 2 and he is not emphasized enough in Dawn Treader. There is more of Aslan here than there was in Prince Caspian, but not enough. Nowhere near enough!
For instance: In the book, and in the BBC version, the three earth children, when they're about to be sent home, meet Aslan at the end of the world-as a lamb, as in "the Lamb of God." In a moment he turns back into a lion, as in "the Lion of Judah," thus leaving no room for doubt as to his true identity with Christ. But this the makers of Movie No. 3 left out. Why? Why were they afraid to show the scene as C. S. Lewis wrote it?
Why These Movies Matter
Here is what's at stake.
Starting in early childhood, or even infancy, we in the Western world consume an incalculable amount of "entertainment"-movies, television shows, books, cartoons, music, video games, etc. In all that mass of popular culture, the Narnia stories are conspicuous for their service to Christ's Kingdom. Almost all the rest of it is purely godless, with a portion that is explicitly anti-Christian.
In the popular culture arena, the Narnian franchise, with few allies, goes up against giants of godlessness such as "Harry Potter" and "Twilight." God has been largely excluded from our popular entertainment. It is a God-free zone. Is it too much to say that godless entertainment, consumed in vast quantities-along with godless education, godless law, and godless politics-fosters godless living?
This is why Douglas Gresham and his collaborators must do the very best they can to make these Narnia films something special. As long as their work is done in good faith and a right spirit, they have reason to hope for God's assistance in their work. They certainly wouldn't be the first artists to receive it, as they labored in Christ's service.
And for starters, it might be a good idea for Mr. Gresham to stick to the story he declares was authored by the Holy Spirit.