C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, one of the great children's book cycles, nearly drowns in the sea-storms of modern big special-effects 3D moviemaking in the third Narnia movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
But not quite. The movie's not bad, even if it's a little unwelcoming. I had a devil of a time getting into it, though I like Lewis, and despite the fact that the movie begins with nearly its best scene: a bang-up fantasy sequence of a seascape painting that magically floods a staid British room and sends the three child protagonists off on tremendous ocean waves into a new round of adventures.
But as the story unwinds, the characters seem flat or obvious, the castles and ship and the world itself look a bit unused, the "real-life" World War II scenes seem too short and shallow, and the monsters and magical animals often have more personality than the humans, especially the kids. The swashbuckling rat, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg this time, instead of Eddie Izzard) has a lot of the best lines. In many ways, he steals the movie.
If Dawn Treader doesn't quite succeed, it's not for want of effort and talent, and even a determination to stir things up. No longer a Disney series, it's being released by Fox. Producer Andrew Adamson has ceded the directorial post he held for the first two Narnia films to the very gifted and sturdy Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, The World Is Not Enough and, most impressively, the brilliant Up documentary series). Oddly, Apted handles some of the big action-fantasy sequences more enticingly than the more intimate drama you'd have thought would be his métier.
Narnia is cast, like the Potters, with three fetching young British actors at the center (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes as the continuing adventurers Lucy and Edmund Pevensie and Will Poulter as their pain-in-the-ass cousin Eustace Scrubb), surrounded by classy adult support (Pegg, Liam Neeson as the lion, Tilda Swinton as the white witch, Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian). And it's a movie full of love for the printed word and for archetypal fancy and fantasy, jam-packed with swords and sorcery, ships and storms, dragons and sea serpents.
It's just a little humorless, humanless, sparkless. The movie begins well, with that bang-up fantasy sequence. But soon the effects take over and even Dawn Treader's other great sequence, a rowdily thrilling game of rat and dragon, can't totally save the show.