I write this with all due respect to director Michael Apted, his actors, the rest of his creative team and even C.S. Lewis himself. But, really, is there anyone out there who actually cares about these Narnia movies? Was there a big clamoring for this second sequel? Would anyone’s world end if the last four books remained where they’ve probably always belonged – on bookshelves?

There must be a devoted audience somewhere, as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian raked in some serious box office cash. Surely, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will surpass Tangled and the infinitely superior latest Harry Potter to own the weekend, giving Fox and Walden Media sufficient cause to dial up the next one.

But rarely has an epic movie series left less of an imprint. Lewis’ Narnian mythology is summarily shortchanged here, transformed into a silly, dull family adventure film with dragons, mysterious mists and a generally lackadaisical attitude. Apted, a fine director not known for his big-budget prowess, brings not a shred of freshness to the project, which boasts the sweeping vistas, tracks over water, seaborne battle and “charming” creatures one has come to expect from a standard fantasy franchise.

The story concerns the youngest Pevensies, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), who are swept into a sea painting and returned to Narnia along with their standoffish cousin Eustace (Will Poulter). There, they join King Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard the ship the Dawn Treader, as they search the high seas for some sort of magical Macguffin involving missing wise men, their swords and a brave mouse named Reepicheep (Simon Pegg).

The stakes for a swashbuckling, big budget adventure could not possibly seem lower. Narnia, we’re told, is in danger, but because the entirety of the Narnia sequences take place aboard the Dawn Treader, or on remote islands, it’s hard to feel the threat. The best epic fantasy series immerse you in the everyday details of their worlds, celebrating the awe and wonder in the mundane. Here, the audience is as far removed from mainstream Narnia as the characters aboard the vessel, so the entire production feels self-encased, as if the only safety being risked is that of the figures onscreen.

The second major rule violated by this middling material: the absence of a villain. The White Witch, so memorably played by Tilda Swinton, lives on only in Edmund’s subconscious. She’s replaced by, yes, a subversive mist that preys on the psychology of this it afflicts by causing, well, brief, minor hallucinations. If there’s anything The Mist, the Frank Darabont-Stephen King adaptation from a few years back proved it’s that a mist is only scary in a movie directed by Frank Darabont, based on a Stephen King story.

The actors all do the distinguished British thing and their handsome, polished accents only further illuminate the fact that the characters are all stiff, one-dimensional bores. Tension, save for some very mild jostling between Eustace and Reepicheep, doesn’t exist here, even as the Dawn Treader sails toward “the end of the world.”

Wonders of the sort that great onscreen mythologies are made of are absent as well. There’s the intriguing mansion that materializes out of thin air, the invisible, one-footed bumblers that snatch Lucy and not much else that smacks of creativity. The final battle is waged against, yes, a sea monster.

It’s all very polished, and looks decent in 3D, so a fair percentage of the Narnia audience should come out satisfied, even if the most engaging personalities – Jesus the Lion, the White Witch and even the two older Pevensies – are barely around. But if Voyage of the Dawn Treader never commits the offense of being spectacularly, incompetently bad, it’s guilty of what might be a far more sinister crime: profound mediocrity.

The Upside: The movie has some nice visual moments, looks OK in 3D and is, well, somewhat exciting at times.

The Downside: It’s also extremely mediocre, a dull and halfhearted affair.

On the Side: Disney bailed on the series after Prince Caspian, believing (correctly, I think) that the Narnia film business may not stay so lucrative.

Grade: C-


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