Review in a Hurry: One of the best Narnia books arrives onscreen more significantly altered than its predecessors, and unfortunately, panders a little too much to its perceived audience. It's still a fun family adventure, but it could have (and should have) been better.
The Bigger Picture: C.S. Lewis' Narnia books are widely thought to be overt Christian allegories, which they are up to a point: Aslan the lion is Jesus, and The Last Battle is an overly preachy reworking of the Book of Revelation. But it's dismissive to think that that's all he and his books were; he drew heavily from many other mythologies as well (the Roman god Bacchus shows up at one point, and not as a dig at paganism either).
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a book was far more patterned on Homer's Odyssey than on anything in the Bible, with returning Pevensie siblings Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley)—and their annoying cousin Eustace (Will Poulter)—joining King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) on a sea journey through magical lands to find seven lost lords.
In the wake of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings becoming successful cinematic franchises by staying reasonably faithful to the text, one would have hoped for a similar outcome here. But after Prince Caspian disappointed (no surprise—the original book is the most disappointing read in the series), it seems Hollywood was granted a license to tinker anew.
So now we have a new villain in the story—a green mist that represents sin and temptation, demanding sacrifices and reanimating images of the White Witch just so Tilda Swinton can class up the joint with another cameo. And we have a new quest that involves collecting seven swords, linking together the disparate islands into a common cause. The best new addition involves some business with a wonderfully disgusting sea serpent, which may be contrived but still looks damn cool.
Yet in creating this coherent narrative, the screenwriters have made the movie into more of a caricature. Subtexts about sin and salvation have become blatant texts, which may please a faith-based audience but turn off the more casual fantasy fan.
There is nonetheless much to recommend the movie. Henley and Keynes are charming as ever, and Poulter's turn as Eustace injects a welcome note of comedic cynicism into the sea of sentimentality. Simon Pegg ably succeeds Eddie Izzard as mouse warrior Reepicheep, Bille Brown's sorcerer Coriakin has a fun performance and a sequence in which Lucy inadvertently wishes her life away is brilliantly disorienting and nightmarish.
If box-office returns are sufficient for The Silver Chair to be made, let's have more of that kind of thing. Less Acts of the Apostles, more Orpheus.
The 180—a Second Opinion: The post-conversion 3-D may be substantially better than Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender, but it's still irrelevant