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 Voyage of The Dawn Treader" looked fabulous on Blu-ray, but it also looks pretty pristine in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, which apparently was the shooting aspect ratio. The film was said to have been printed at 2.39:1 for theatrical release to maximize screen coverage, but no cropping appears to have been done. As on the Blu-ray, colors are pleasingly saturated and there's even a good amount of detail for standard definition.
The audio is is just as good, nicely mixed so that you don't have to adjust the volume up or down when the loud effects sequences are going on, or when someone is speaking quietly. It's no match for DTS-HD Master Audio, but the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround still does a nice job spreading the sonics across the viewing area in a natural way. Additional options are French and Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Compared to the Blu-ray release, there's not much here--just four deleted scenes an average to better-than-average commentary from director Michael Apted and producer Mark Johnson.
"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. In fact, fans probably owe Fox a thank-you for producing the third installment after Disney opted out following disappointing returns on "Prince Caspian."