The third installment of The Chronicles of Narnia arrives seemingly packed with adventure, destined to please audiences that thought (wrongly) that the latest Harry Potter film was too talky. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, treacherous seas, slave-trading bandits, an evil green mist and a vicious sea monster target and attack the passengers and crew of the noble vessel of Prince Caspian and his men. Swords are unleashed; battles are fought; peril is merely great-ish.
So why does the film, especially in its first hour, feel so slow and banal? Probably for the same reason its predecessors felt like slogs: Most of its characters are supremely bland, so finding out who comes out on the bad end of a duel simply isn’t that interesting. Only two characters are worth much notice; neither is a prince, and one is a really big mouse, which tells you something sad about Narnia’s royal family.
Luckily, there are fewer Pevensies per square inch in this film, with ultra-boring Peter and Susan off living in the real world. Their absence leaves younger siblings Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) to embark on a surprise journey to magical Narnia with an unexpected guest: their obnoxious cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), the requisite whiny brat in need of comeuppance. The kids find themselves aboard the Dawn Treader and set off on a quest to find some missing colleagues of the father of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes, pretty but dull). Soon, in the way of Lost castaways, they find themselves menaced by a mysterious mist.
As a villain or terror, green mist isn’t exactly up there with vampires or Dementors, so director Michael Apted has his work cut out for him to make this story even the slightest bit spooky. Besides, if you know that this evil mist is going to reveal to you the things you most fear, why are you scared when they appear? Still, Edmund is paralyzed a time or two by the apparition of Tilda Swinton, who haunted him in the series’ first film and whose more sustained presence could certainly have improved Dawn Treader.
The best elements of the film aren’t its overly obvious Christian message or its dreadful, unnecessary 3D, an afterthought with no point except to soak audiences with a steeper ticket price. What saves Dawn Treader are the heroic Reepicheep, Prince Caspian’s engaging mouse sidekick, and Eustace, who regards Reepicheep as his nemesis but whose journey into self-awareness turns out to be genuinely moving. What happens to Eustace is a good reminder that redemption is only powerful if you’ve got some bad behavior to repent. Otherwise, it’s an empty show, no matter how hard you push the allegory.