THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010) (***)
In the most overtly allegorical of C.S. Lewis' NARNIA series, the heroes battle the demons inside rather than white witches or evil kings. While director Michael Apted never mentions any one religion, the Christian undertones of this installment are more apparent than any of the other films. Vanity, jealousy, greed and pride are the villains here.
Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) dream of returning to Narnia where they were a queen and king. In England, they are stuck as simple teens living with their aunt and uncle during World War II. Instead of battling mythical creatures, they're stuck fighting with their stuffy cousin Eustace (Will Poulter, SON OF RAMBOW). Then one day a painting in their room comes to life and transports them back to Narnia and onto the sailing vessel of King Caspian (Ben Barnes). At first they are unsure why they have been called back, but soon learn of the evil pull of Dark Island, which has been trapping people in its seductive green mist.
During the course of their adventure, the heroes will encounter slave traders, dufflepuds, dragons, magic ponds and a giant sea serpent that makes CLASH OF THE TITANS' Kraken look like a sea slug. Along the way, the evil mist will play on the characters' weaknesses. Lucy wishes she were as beautiful as her older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell). Edmund continues to struggle with feeling like a second wheel, only this time it's not to his older brother Peter (William Moseley), but to the new king Caspian. Eustace is susceptible to… well… just name the sin. The obnoxiously practical young man is mentored by the brave warrior mouse Reepicheep (Simon Pegg, SHAUN OF THE DEAD).
The script from Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni moves nimbly from one adventure to the next. Apted paces the action well, while some of the humor doesn't hit perfectly. Moreover, Aslan (Liam Neeson) is less of a warrior here and more of a deus ex machina. The writers handle the lion's "I am Jesus" speech at the end with enough ambiguity that one could insert any name whether it simply be god or as specific as the giant spaghetti monster.
Lucy and Edmund internal struggles are engaging (even if Edmund's is a bit redundant), but Eustace emerges as the star. Poulter is remarkably subtle for an actor of his age. His performance is all the more impressive when thinking how completely opposite Eustace is from the young thug-turned-filmmaker in RAMBOW. He acts like a little dragon even before he is transformed into one. I look forward to film versions of THE SILVER CHAIR and THE LAST BATTLE mainly to see more of Poulter.
While it doesn't come close to the balance between character and fantastic adventure that THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, but it does improve on PRINCE CASPIAN. While there is a message underneath, it's not preachy. Many of the issues the young heroes deal with are the same that most teens struggle with as they transition between childhood and adulthood. It's just that they get by with a little help from a lion.