Little kids will surely find this collection of fantastical gewgaws enthralling — Look, a talking mouse! Hey, there's a minotaur! — but as a grown-up fan of the magical and the mysterious, I was almost totally bored by this third and perhaps most tryingly pious installment in C.S. Lewis' fanciful presentation of Christian mythology.
There's a whole lotta capital-A adventure here, but it comes without a whole lotta connecting story. In Dawn Treader, seemingly random cool things get tossed into a listless, if not actually unpleasant, excursion around the outlying islands of the pseudo-medieval realm of Narnia. The two youngest Pevensie children — Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skander Keynes) — inadvertently escape from war-torn 1940s Britain with their horrid cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) accidentally in tow. This time, instead of stepping through a magical wardrobe, they journey through a magic painting and end up on the Dawn Treader, the exploratory vessel of King Caspian (Ben Barnes), whom they'd met in the previous film in the series, back when he was merely Prince Caspian and their older siblings were along for the ride (Peter and Susan make only brief appearances here).
Now, Caspian has some bad news for them and for moviegoers: Narnia is at peace. There's kinda really nothing interesting going on and no big disasters for the Earther kids to get messed up in. So they just goof around for a while waiting for trouble — Yay! Caspian and Edmund get to have fun sword duel! Stick-in-the-mud Eustace faints at the sight of a minotaur! Trouble, of course, does invariably find them, this time in the form of a mission to find the seven swords of seven lords who got lost on a mission to do something or other important to the fate of Narnia. Yawn.
When the story finally does start, however, it never hangs together. There's a magician (Bille Brown) on one island who has cast an invisibility spell over the strange one-legged vaguely humanish creatures who live there. This subplot makes for a goodly chunk of the film, but we never get what that was all about. Once that task is complete, the magician points them in the direction of the next one, but the script — by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni — never really explicates. Evidently, the kids have to take the seven swords and lay them upon Aslan's table on another island in order to fix all the bad things that are happening. Unfortunately, we never understand what the heck this act is meant to do.
I have a terrible feeling we're meant to just take it all on faith, to just trust that this is the right thing to do and that perhaps we aren't even meant to understand it. And perhaps there's a reason for that. Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) is a stand-in for Jesus, and C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels are Christian apologetics. Perhaps those in the club find the notion of blind trust, even in the face of the irrational, comforting. But it sure doesn't make for a compelling movie.
It doesn't help either that the adventures here have no heft and no emotion and that the only truly involving characters are a talking warrior mouse named Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) and a dragon who enters the story literally out of nowhere (he doesn't speak). Those two characters have some nice moments, and, quite frankly, they are more animated than the human characters, even though they're CGI creations. That's not a criticism of the kids — they are fine — but of the lackluster script and the unimaginative direction by Michael Apted, which treats what should be awe-inspiring as so prosaic that we wonder why we're even being invited to look at it.
The postproduction conversion to 3-D doesn't help matters either. It succeeds only in rendering the sweet-faced kids and the lovely landscapes creepy and fake. It adds nothing to the film except, well, a heftier ticket price, and there's no magic in thatat all.