When Disney elected to cease paying for Walden Media's adaptations of C.S. Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, following the stilted box-office performance of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian in 2008, it looked for a little while that everybody's favorite watered-down Christian apologetic series would peter out barely a quarter of the way through. Then along came Fox, to rescue the half-prepped The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, getting it into theaters only a year late (though what a damnably destructive year it turned out to be), and with a little bit of luck, this one will finish off the job that Prince Caspian couldn't quite manage, and we'll have no more of them. Because, having now gone 0-for-three on the actual good books, I am personally terrified unto death of what unwatchable hatchet job would come of the winsome anti-Muslim inanities of The Last Battle.

Dawn Treader is comfortably the worst of the three movies. I don't wish to be so blunt about it, but that's the case, and this despite trading in the mildewy talents of Andrew Adamson (who has in his life only ever made Narnia and Shrek movies) for a legitimate, actual movie maker in the form of Michael Apted, continuing his habit of wasting time between Up films by demonstrating that his talents at fiction are nowhere near his talents as a documentarian (you perhaps recall - though I pray that you do not - that he was the perpetrator of the indefensible James Bond abortion The World Is Not Enough). Indeed, Apted's presence is a active detriment to the series; Adamson's lack of personality made for some awfully sleepy movies, but he knew how to steal from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies with aplomb; while Apted's handling of Dawn Treader' s action sequences borders on the incoherent.

This third and possibly final installment in the adventures of the Pevensie children finds the two youngest, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) forced to live with their aunt and uncle, the Scrubbs, and their intensely unlikable cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), sometime in the back half of the Second World War (presumably early 1945; since the first film in the franchise, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe took place during the Blitz and in the interim Keynes and Henley have visibly aged every inch of the five years separating the two films), while their older siblings Peter (William Moseley, in a teeny weeny cameo) and Susan (Anna Popplewell, in a larger cameo) are in America for ill-expressed reasons. I like to imagine the conversation went like this:
FATHER PEVENSIE: "I think we should take the children to America. It's safer there."
MOTHER PEVENSIE: "What, all four?"
FATHER PEVENSIE: "Good Lord, no, only the two we like."
(To be fair, it's only slightly more elegantly expressed in the novel, which conveniently forgot that it was supposed to be wartime).

As scintillating as watching people in a British family hating each other can be, Mike Leigh already had a movie coming out the same December, so the plot kicks in: by means of a magical painting, the three children end up in Narnia, the magical world where Edmund and Lucy once reigned a thousand years ago in Narnia-time, and find themselves on the deck of the Dawn Treader, the finest ship in the Narnian fleet. Onboard, the young King Caspian (Ben Barnes), whose struggles formed the bulk of the plot of the last film, is questing to find the seven lords who stood by his father in the bad old days of his usurping uncle. This plan is quickly superceded when the adventurers learn of a deadly green mist terrorising the outer island, but a convenient wizard of exposition (Billie Brown) explains how finding the seven lords will also bring about the end of the evil mist.

"What, a green mist?" you may be thinking with furrowed brow, if like me you grew up on Lewis's books. Aye: in a break with the formula of the first two movies, which hewed to the source material with fidelity bordering on the annoying, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has upended the original plot to no small degree. Mostly with good cause: out of all seven books, the third had perhaps the least conflict-driven plot, functioning mostly as an allegorical travelogue. By significantly re-ordering the events they've chosen to keep, and hanging the whole affair on a more existential threat, writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (returning from the earlier films), and Michael Petroni (a Narnia virgin) have given it a more conventional and arguably therefore more successful narrative shape.

But even so, Dawn Treader is a dreary, meandering, and largely pointless exercise in shuffling from one event to the next, with the religious symbolism that was Lewis's primary motivation in writing the novels - and Walden Media's chief reason for producing the movies - largely buffed out, and robbing most of the film's theme in the process (it's a weird feeling for me to watch a movie and complain, "There's not enough Jesus in this"; but at least that's something). The book's potent baptism imagery, one of the finest explicitly Christian elements in any of the seven novels, is entirely gone; only at the very end, when the Christ-analogue lion Aslan (voiced, as ever, by Liam Neeson, an uncommonly good choice to play a Christlike animal) explains some rules to the children, does the film lurch towards apologetics, which makes it even worse.

In the meanwhile, the four leads simply plod around and do nothing interesting (for the third consecutive time, Henley is the best of the young actors, but only relatively, and she can do nothing to counteract Poulter's desperate over-acting), while Tilda Swinton makes a cameo as the evil White Witch, doing absolutely nothing for the plot but adding a whole dollop of fake drama, and seriously testing the article of faith amongst cinephiles that there is no such thing as a bad appearance by Tilda Swinton.

Apted, meanwhile, pushes the film through its paces without any sense of epic scale or drama or anything of the sort; at nearly 30 minutes shorter than either of the two previous films, Dawn Treader is horribly rushed, even as the story goes virtually nowhere that it couldn't have gotten to with still half an hour taken out. Moreover, Apted films all of the fighting scenes - of which there are more in this film than in the two others put together, I'd wager - with a combination of jerky, sloppy cutting, needless slow-motion, and a general air of apathy, sucking even more of the energy out of the film.

But he does let the camera linger on the dodgy CGI: man, I remember when The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeDawn Treader like dolphins, looks like a plastic doll, or a plastic doll with fuzz on it. I understand that, even coming out an unsupportably long time after the last film, this one was rushed through a little bit to keep it from being even later; but the filmmakers could have at least pretended that they cared.

Instead, they splashed their boredom onscreen, where everyone could see it and share it. Dawn Treader is slack and messy and small-minded, and it is perversely anti-fun in a way that no fantasy epic has any right to be.

Reviews in this series
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Adamson, 2005)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Adamson, 2008)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Apted, 2010)