That's not to say there is nothing to love about this rather pretty and well-made film. As has been the case with the previous two Narnia films, the production design and visual effects departments went all out to very attractive effect; the ship in particular is vividly realized and owes much to other seafaring films that have served that aspect of life and travel far better than did Lewis in his book. The crowding above and below decks, the intricacies of a sailing ship's workings, all brought to mind the best of modern sailing films, Peter Weir's wonderful adaptation of six or seven Patrick O'Brian novels into Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (a film that is, in its way, a textbook example of how, if you must play with a story or series in adapting it for the big screen, that should be done).
The casting, too, is nothing to complain of. Georgie Henley and Skander Keynes are back as the youngest Pevensie kids, and own their roles nicely, as do Ben Barnes as Caspian, Liam Neeson as Aslan and Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (which, huh? What's she doing in this thing? See below). The masterminds behind this film could not help but find a way to include Anna Poppelwell and William Mosley, too, in a bit of shoehorning that was far more graceful than many other improvements made to the story, and I don't begrudge their presence; I don't know how much work either is getting and perhaps they've been typecast.
The exceptional bit, though, and one thing I must applaud, is the addition to the young cast of the Narnia cycle, Will "Son of Rambow" Poulter as Eustace Clarence Scrubb, the Pevensies' annoying cousin who is redeemed by Narnia. Poulter simply steals the film, once again playing a Bully Who Learns Better (in a nice touch, he's an intellectual bully, a scoffer who refuses to be taken in, instead of a physical brute). His character is the only one who really develops or grows in the novel and this is given full expression in the film -- though even when he's being beastly, one can't help liking him. There's too much mischief in that face.
A lot of my lingering inclination to like this film rests on young Mr. Poulter.
Really, there isn't that much that is merely bad about this film, something I can only say because there is a heading yet to come, which is The Horrible. That said, well, some of the most charming scenes and peoples the book has to offer are given short shrift, repurposed, or removed altogether. I'm talking the Monopod/Dufflepuds, Coriakin and the People Beneath the Waves. The former's appearance is cut short and their charm lost (their tendency to agree with each other and their visual funniness remain, but gone or so-close-to-gone-as-might-as-well-be-this-film's-Bubo-the-Owl is their complete misunderstanding of their relationship with Coriakin and of themselves); the middle is warped into a mere signpost and engine of foreshadowing (See below); the last, an element of the end-tale to which I most looked forward, expecting it to be given wholly over to the wonderfully competent effects and design crew, reduced just to a lot of lilies floating on the surface of the sea. Boo!
The first two books/films in The Chronicles of Narnia are all about overcoming invasion and great evil, the White Witch in the first tale, the usurper Miraz and the Telmarines who subdued the real Narnia in the second. Because of this, I can almost understand the filmmakers' obvious concern that Voyage of the Dawn Treader does not fit this plot at all. Voyage is a story of exploration and mystery, of questions posed and solved; the engine that drives it is not a quest at all, but rather discovery (rediscovery, actually, if one wants to go deep in to the Narnian backstory, for many of the places found in Voyage were known to the Pevensies of old but lost and forgotten by the sea-fearing Telmarines, except for a few intrepid souls). What happened to those seven lords who ventured forth in Caspian's youth and never returned? What's out there? Can you really sail to the end of the world? Good and interesting questions all their own, and interlarded well with the story of Eustace's redemption. Quite enough to make a fine film, I would think.
But no. We had to trash that perfectly good plot, invent a quest-and-conquer-evil plot in its place, and force the characters from the first to instead enact the second. Suddenly the seven lost lords disappeared with Magic McGuffin Swords, and an island that is quite frightening and interesting just as it is is suddenly the home of Great Threatening Evil the likes of which we've not seen since Luke insisted on entering the Dark Side Tree on Dagobah. Except somehow it is a threat to all of Narnia and is stealing/swallowing up innocent villagers from a Narnian colony. Coriakin tells Caspian and the kids all about everything that lies ahead of them up to and including the Star's Daughter and the island of Ramandu (and there's a Blue Star to guide them there, FFS) and charges them with purging the icky evil of the Dark Island by dumping the aformentioned swords (after they collect 'em all, Pokemon!) onto the table on Ramandu's island. Dumb, dumb, dumb. But not a huge surprise because this is Hollywood.
But oh, what had to be sacrificed. Like most of the genuine drama and wonder that made Voyage of the Dawn Treader many people's favorite of the Narnia books (and I count your humble blogger in that number). Eustace's transformation into a dragon, for instance, is robbed almost completely of the horror of discovery and the pathos of Eustace's experience (all that is left of the former is some tears the blue-eyed dragon sheds early on). Every time I read this book, which I do often, I'm always moved and kind of amazed at the gradually dawning horror achieved in the transformation's reveal, and the dumb misery of it, the physical agony of the bracelet digging into the dragon's arm (and it most decidedly does not grow to fit the dragon uncomfortably snugly - it stays man-sized and digs and tears into the dragon's flesh; in the film it doesn't even leave a mark!) and the logic behind the transformation (the film just says, as a graceless throwaway line, that dragon's treasures are enchanted). That this sub-plot is then prolonged stupidly -- Eustace's tow service and a visually exciting but kind of stupid (and wholly invented by the filmmakers) Dragon Eustace versus the Sea Serpent monster fight -- is not nearly as unforgiveable as the cavalier way in which the transformation is effected and lived out in the film. Turning into a dragon was meant by Lewis as a lesson and a punishment, not a chance to be a hero. Rubbish.
But the real horrible in this film is the loss of wonder and mystery. Knowing already where all the ship is going to sail takes the fun out of the tale. Collect all the baubles and bring them together. Yawn.
Green mist to signify the eeeeeeevil of Dark Island? Wrong.
Cameo appearances by The White Witch to personify the eeeeeeeeevil? Also wrong. Are we going to see her in every movie? Is she going to take the place of the Lady of the Green Kirtle in The Silver Chair?
And sea serpent as Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man? Really? Wrong. So wrong.
As I final note, I will also observe that the 3D was used to no great effect except to induce the headaches that ill-done 3D so often brings. I'll put up with a little pain for something seriously immersive like Avatar, but anything less? Ugh (but this is my bad; another theater in town had both the 3D and the 2D versions but was out of my way; I saved some gas and time but at what cost? Ask me if/when the Tylenol kicks in).
Good thing they cast Will Poulter, that's all I can say.
Ha and also rumph.