Critics have been hard on the Narnia films. So have fans of the C.S. Lewis books, who've wished that the films would stay closer to the original texts. But for those who haven't read the books or who understand that film is a completely different medium, the three "Chronicles of Narnia" movies will seem like pretty solid family entertainment. The "family" part is worth noting, because it's hard finding PG-rated adventures that aren't skimpy on production values or dumbed down.
Like his college chum J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis wrote books based on his fascination with mythology, and that includes Christian mythos. Because his heroes were children who entered a mythic past through a portal to a parallel world, Lewis's books were better suited for and received by young readers than the Lord of the Rings books penned by Tolkien, And Middle Earth is a scarier place than Narnia. Even with evil rulers, there's less violence, less trauma, and a less-complicated storyline in each of the Lewis tales. The third installment, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of The Dawn Treader," is probably the most family-friendly of all. I don't even think that you have to have seen the first two installments to enjoy it, though the previous films do give you the backstory.
In "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" (2005), the Pevensies are among the London children sent to rural areas for safety during WWII. At the country estate that has become their new home, the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), discovers a fantasy world through the back of a gigantic Wardrobe. Her siblings--Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley), and Susan (Anna Popplewell)--eventually follow her into Narnia, where a White Witch (Tiilda Swinton) has been an oppressive ruler. The four children turn out to be the prophesized "daughters of Eve and sons of Adam" that were destined to unite with Aslan, the Lion, to end the White Witch's rule.
In "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the four return to Narnia years later, only to find that time has passed even more quickly in Narnia--hundreds of years, in fact. Once again, the four are called upon to defeat evil, this time by helping rightful heir-to-the-throne Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) regain his kingdom from an evil pretender (Sergio Castellitto). Assisting them is a feisty rodent version of Puss 'n' Boots named Reepicheep (Eddie Izzard).
For the third installment, the two older children are written out of the story, and it's only Lucy and Edmund who return . . . this time, with a whiny cousin named Eustace (Will Poulter) who thinks Narnia is a bunch of hooey. That is, until a painting of a ship at sea starts to gush water right into their room, and suddenly the three of them find themselves picked up by the Narnian ship The Dawn Treader, commanded by now-King Caspian. Eustace provides the comic relief. He's an annoying little fellow whom you like to see get his come-uppance, even if it's something as simple as fainting when he hears a minotaur talk. But his presence makes "The Dawn Treader" a much lighter film, and one that kids really respond to.
While there's fighting in all three films, there are considerably more battles in the first two, and a lot more exposition-through-dialogue in "Prince Caspian." But overall "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of The Dawn Treader" (2010) is the most action-packed of the three, serving up a plot that comes closer to "Jason and the Argonauts," "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," or Homer's tale of "The Odyssey." It's a quest story that involves lost souls being recovered by collecting the swords of seven lost Lords, with trips to places like Goldwater Island (as in King Midas, not Barry), a Magician's Island where there are one-footed invisible men, a Dark Island, Ramandu's Island, and the Lone Islands, all of which offer the sort of dangers and delights that Jason, Sinbad and Odysseus encountered. There's even a dragon in this story, and a fire-breathing one at that.
Unlike the first two films, this one was produced almost exclusively with CGI effects, but they look darned good--from the dragon's breath to the antics of little Reepacheep (voiced now by Simon Pegg). It's a slick, glossy, well-produced film that's great for family movie nights.
The packaging is another matter. If you've read my reviews before, you know I'm no fan of cardboard sleeves, and the way this package is designed the discs have more room to slide around than usual. Even using a fine-thread cloth to clean the disc I still noticed a streak the next time I pulled it out of the sleeve. What you get is a lot of cardboard: an embossed cardboard slipcase with openings on the top and bottom, and another cardboard slipcase with one opening on the side that tucks into it. Inside that is a tri-fold with a center cardboard fold-down that has a foam tab which holds the Digital Copy. Tucked inside the left cardboard panel is the Blu-ray, while inside the right panel is the DVD. Behind the center panel is a full-color booklet of "The Voyage of The Dawn Treader" Collectible Postcards that tear out so if you want you can actually use them as postal cards. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm thinking of switching places with the Digital Copy and keeping the Blu-ray on that center tab, which seems to provide more protection against scratches.
"The Voyage of The Dawn Treader" looks fabulous on Blu-ray, with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc a good one. There are no compression artifacts to be found, and while I noticed noise in one exterior scene, the fact that there are so many exteriors with no noise struck me as noteworthy. Colors are bold and bright, edge detail is superb, skin tones are wonderful (if "warmed" a bit by golden hues), and black levels more than sufficient. You tend to notice the HD clarity in scenes that were shot with some inventiveness, like the shot of Edmund from the bottom of the goldwater pool. "Dawn Treader" is a sumptuous visual feast, presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which apparently was the shooting aspect ratio. The film was apparently printed at 2.39:1 for theatrical release to maximize screen coverage, but no cropping appears to have been done.
The audio is even better, unless you remember that the theatrical release employed a 7.1 surround sound. Provided here is the standard DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English, with additional audio options in French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in those three languages plus English SDH. But it's a booming, fully immersive soundtrack that's fully compatible with the glossy visual production values of the film. Every flap of a dragon's wing or creak of a mast in the wind comes into your movie room with grand clarity and sonic weight. Sounds move naturally across the sound fields, too, and the effects speakers really get involved, and not just in the action moments. From the moment that painting starts to flood the kids' room, everything bursts forward with audio amplitude. (Yes, I just said that, and with a straight face, too).
I'm not much of a game player. Just show me the extras, and I'll watch what I want, is my attitude. But someone at Fox thought it'd be cute to organize the extras like a journey, and so you have to click on various things to get what seem to me randomly assigned features for that category.
"Goldwater Island," for example, includes "Explore Goldwater Island" and "Dragon Discovery," which make perfect sense. But also in that section is the theatrical trailer and a Digital Copy how-to featurette. Both island features run two minutes, combined.
"Magician's Island" features "Explore Magician's Island" and "Dufflepod Discovery," but this is where you also have to look to find the commentary by director Michael Apted and producer Mark Johnson. Total run-time for these features is around eight minutes.
"The Dark Island" includes "Explore the Dark Island," "White Witch Discovery" (whom purists will scream shouldn't be in this installment at all), "Serpent Discovery," "Portal to Narnia: A Painting Comes to Life" (which would have made more sense to include in "The Dawn Treader" section), and "Good vs. Evil: Battle on the Sea," all of which run a little over 21 minutes.
"The Dawn Treader" features "King Caspian's Guide to The Dawn Treader," "The Secret Islands: Untold Adventures," two "In Character" segments (one with Liam Neeson, the other with Georgie Henley and Will Poulter), a "Making a Scene" featurette about that opening painting scene, and "Direct Effect: Michael Apted," a seven-minute featurette that has Apted talking about shooting a sequel and the problems that poses. Total run-time for features in this section is around 37 minutes.
"Ramandu's Island" features (what else?) "Explore Ramandu's Island," "Reepicheep Discovery," "Aslan Discovery," "Liliandil Discovery," and a "Search for the Seven Swords Match Game" that's as simple as it sounds and reinforces that this film is aimed at families with children. There's also a more substantial visual effects progression breakdown with optional commentary by Apted and Johnson. It's average to above-average.
"Lone Islands" includes "Explore Narrow Haven," "Minotaur Discovery," four deleted scenes, and "The Epic Continues," for eight more minutes of extras.
It seems like a lot when you list it, but it's all so abbreviated that it only whets (uh, pun intended) your appetite for more. As for BD-Live content, there's not much there either--under 10 minutes of stuff that overlaps with disc content.
But let's not forget the bonus DVD and Digital Copy as Blu-ray bonus features, and those enable fans to watch the film on multiple platforms.
"The Voyage of The Dawn Treader" got the lowest marks of the three films, but I take exception with that. Many families will find this installment the most entertaining, action-filled, and humorous of the three. And it looks and sounds stunning in Blu-ray. In fact, fans probably owe Fox a thank-you for producing the third installment after Disney opted out following disappointing returns on "Prince Caspian."