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December 19, 2010

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Nearing Narnia spirit

C.S. Lewis began the third book in his Narnia series, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader": "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

Nothing in the three inspiration-less films adapted from Lewis' series ever rises to the wit of that simple line, though the latest, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," comes closest to the spirit of the original.

Spirit is something that has been consistently lacking throughout this film franchise.

The first, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," was sapped of life by mediocre digital creations, and the second, "Prince Caspian," was bloated by endless battle scenes.

Some of the movies' failure might be laid at Lewis' feet, too. While his Narnia books are filled with wonder and a lush, mapped world (not to mention brilliant titles), they were also less artful in their religious allegory.

If Hollywood adaptations can reflect the enduring strength of beloved tales read in childhood, then Lewis is being decidedly thumped by J.R.R. Tolkien, his contemporary and friend.

To right the ship, "Dawn Treader" has returned to the faithful. After "Prince Caspian" failed to find a wider audience by lessening the Christian themes, "Dawn Treader" has restored them.

In "Dawn Treader," the two youngest of the four Pevensie siblings are staying with relatives, where they are harassed by their annoying cousin, the unfortunately named Eustace (Will Poulter).

They are sucked back into Narnia (with Eustace in tow) by a painting hanging on the wall of the ship the Dawn Treader. It is the film's most magical scene: The painting first spits water in Lucy's face, then begins to gush, flooding the room. Before they know it, Caspian (Ben Barnes) is fishing them out of the sea and onto the Dawn Treader.

Here, the 3-D of "The Dawn Treader" is good, almost soaking the audience in the rush of water. But after a strong start, the effect seems to recede, as if the filmmakers (who added 3-D in post-production) sought to get by with merely a handful of scenes.

Three years have passed in Narnia time since the last visit from the children, when they helped Caspian overthrow his evil uncle Miraz from the throne. Peace has followed, and now Caspian is sailing to the Lone Islands in search of the missing seven Lords of Telmar.

With Australia adequately subbing for the ends of the earth, they embark on a trip of island hopping en route to some kind of evil epicenter, where a mysterious green mist lurks near Dark Island.

Along the way, the characters are variously tempted: Edmund by power, Lucy by beauty. Visions of their fears bring a cameo of Tilda Swinton's icy White Witch.

As in previous films, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" cannot help but feel like an assemblage of characters and scenes, not a flowing film.

It is the best-looking of the Narnia films, but real emotion, even simple motivation, still are lacking, particularly with Edmund and Caspian. Poulter's Eustace is a bit better, as he undergoes a transformation from brat to hero while literally transformed into a fire-breathing dragon.

The religiosity of these movies has been their most discussed quality. "Dawn Treader" wears it most openly in a suggestion of heaven and a line from the Christ-like Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) that, in the human world, "I have another name."

But the Christian themes (which will go over the head of most young viewers just as they did young readers) are not what sinks the Narnia movies. It is a lack of imagination; a sin, indeed.


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