When I was a kid, I’d go into the backyard and wait for Aslan to come and get me.
I knew, from repeated readings of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, that the great lion could come at any ol’ time. But I figured it’d be best if I was ready—and I tried to encourage him to come on an afternoon when there wasn’t much going on. So, on lazy summer days, I’d sit in the bushes (so my parents wouldn’t be alarmed should they see a sudden flash of light or a mysterious whoosh of wind) and think about how best to greet a centaur or make small talk with a squirrel. And, when that didn’t seem to work, I started asking my parents whether they’d ever be in the market for a wardrobe.
I never got to Narnia—not in a literal sense, anyway. For whatever reason, Aslan saw fit to keep me firmly in this world. We can’t all be swept away to visit another, I guess.
For Lucy and Edmund, of course, such trips are old hat. They visit Narnia more often than most of us visit Disneyland, so when one of Harold and Alberta Scrubb’s unloved paintings suddenly starts flooding the spare bedroom with seawater, the Pevensie siblings know better than to freak out: They simply swim around and wait to be plucked into their next adventure.
Not so Eustace Clarence Scrubb, for whom Narnia was just an imaginary land—something he referenced only when he wanted to mock Edmund and Lucy. He panics.
You’d think Eustace might’ve apologized for making fun of all his cousins’ Narnia talk after he, Edmund and Lucy are fished out of the drink and pulled aboard King Caspian’s Dawn Treader in the middle of the Great Eastern Ocean. Not him. As soon as he gets his sea legs, Master Scrubb sets to complaining about the accommodations, stealing oranges and antagonizing most everyone on board.
“Perhaps we could throw him back,” the gallant talking mouse Reepicheep suggests.
But Aslan doesn’t pull people into Narnia simply to have them tossed away. Even Eustace—especially Eustace—sniveling and shrinking as he is, has a place in Aslan’s plan. And that plan will set sail with all hands on deck even if Eustace has to be dragged aboard by his sopping wet hair.
Reviewing some films, we say right up front that there’s “too much blood” or “too much sex” to catalogue it fully. Here, we have a more unique issue: There’s too much positivity to adequately deal with in this space.
In a nutshell, the story of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of high adventure: Caspian and crew must (in the film) find the source of an evil green mist and dispel it with the help of seven magical swords. But as we’re told by a magician early on, “to defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.” And so the Dawn Treader becomes a voyage of self-discovery, in which characters are challenged, tempted and tried before finding the wherewithal inside—and outside—themselves to triumph.
Lucy must conquer her jealousy and her self-image insecurities. Edmund, finally free from the shadow of his older brother, Peter, finds he must submit to a new authority in Caspian. Eustace’s issues run the gamut, from cowardice and greed to just being a pest. Everyone comes face to face with their fears and peevish natures—and what they see is rarely pretty.
And that’s the key: These faults are ugly. They aren’t excused or mollified or treated with a sense of relativist gentleness. Everyone brings aboard their own sets of bad qualities and, rather than accept them, our heroes and heroines are encouraged to overcome them—even if it means, as it does in Lucy’s case—appreciating yourself for who you are.
Lucy has long compared herself, unfavorably, to her beautiful older sister, Susan. So Lucy’s greatest challenge here is the temptation to turn herself into Susan—via the magician’s book. She recites a spell and is thrilled when she sees herself as Susan. Then, despite the protestations of Aslan, she rips the page out of the book and takes it back onboard the Dawn Treader to recite again. When she does she’s whisked back to England, this time transformed into Susan—and finds that, in so doing, she’s almost wished herself away. “You doubt your value,” Aslan tells her. “Don’t run from who you are.” Sage advice for our times, when many young girls try to conform to a standard template of beauty or pretend to be someone they are not.
Meanwhile, irrepressible Reepicheep takes a personal interest in Eustace’s maturation: Instead of running the boy through for stealing an orange (absconding with the ship’s stores, the mouse solemnly says, is a capital offense), he gives Eustace an energetic fencing lesson—helping him begin to overcome his fear. And when the lad must face a horrific challenge, Reepicheep tries to instill in him a sense of duty and courage.
It works. Eustace ends up the story’s hero, flying (literally) into the face of danger, selflessly staying evil’s hand for the sake of his friends—which is exactly what his cousins have become.
C.S. Lewis always meant for Dawn Treader to reflect a Christian’s walk in this fallen world of ours, and the temptations faced by the film’s protagonists seem to reflect the Seven Deadly Sins outlined by Pope Gregory in 590—extravagance, gluttony, greed, discouragement, wrath, envy and pride.
While all of the characters have some work to do, it’s Eustace who gains the most, spiritually, from his trip to Narnia. After pilfering treasure from a dragon horde, Eustace turns into a dragon—and the fact that this very mean boy turns out to be a very nice dragon hints at the paradoxical nature within us all: We are creatures of God turned draggonish by sin—and yet, we’re sometimes at our best when we finally, fully understand our own twisted natures.
Eustace eventually turns back into a boy—not from any magic potion or as a reward for an act of heroism, but by the grace of Aslan. Though the transformation scene differs from what is found in the book (more on that later), the meaning is the same—underlined by Eustace’s own words: “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it [change] by myself.” He needed, as we all do, the help of a Savior.
In Narnia, that Savior is Aslan, and his oft-referenced “country” is heaven. Lewis meant the great lion to be a Christ-like figure, and those of us who’ve been raised both in the faith and with the Narnia series are fully aware of that. To introduce that idea to moviegoers who are meeting Aslan for the first time here, the film draws a dotted line between the lion and the Lamb. When Lucy asks whether Aslan can be visited not just in Narnia but in our world, Aslan tells her yes. “But there I have another name,” he continues, in a line straight from the book. “You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
That short speech preserves the book’s explicit, deeply spiritual underpinnings. And it marks Dawn Treader as a voyage of faith and belief. For, as Reepicheep says, “We have nothing, if not belief.”
Lewis also included a lot of magic in his books, and the film brings images to that as well. Lucy, for instance, both willingly and under duress reads spells from the magician’s spell book. It’s worth noting that in Lewis’ Dawn Treader, magic and the magician are clearly under Aslan’s authority, but the movie sometimes uncouples the magic from spirituality, making it feel more naturalistic. Aslan clearly disapproves of her dabbling. Still, it can be fairly said that it appears as though Lucy is playing around with the same kind of sorcery seen in Harry Potter or Charmed.
Shimmering, translucent CGI naiads swim through the water, their feminine curves fairly evident at times. Lucy sees teens kissing in London.
Dawn Treader’s action sequences, though frequent, don’t wander far afield from those found in classic swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn. And they’re far less traumatic than those seen in the previous Narnia film, Prince Caspian. There are swordfights aplenty, and a few slave traders are thrown off buildings or take tumbles into the drink. But there’s no blood and no painfully obvious deaths.
There is, however, a pretty scary sea serpent that attacks the Dawn Treader as it sails toward Dark Island. The serpent is toothy, ugly and ever so mean, and it might well frighten younger moviegoers right out of their landlubber shoes. Also, Eustace, as a dragon, gets stabbed with a sword, and we see the remains of some of the lords Caspian is searching for. (One of them has been turned into a statue of gold. Another is a skeleton.)
The film tames down Eustace’s transformation back into a boy considerably from what the book indicates. Rather than showing Aslan ripping the flesh off a little boy—a scene that would’ve likely taken the film into PG-13 territory, according to Walden Media president Michael Flaherty—the scaly disrobing is treated to a one-step remove, where the skin magically falls off as Aslan claws the ground.
“Fool,” “pipsqueak,” “coot” and “sap” get tossed around in a name-calling context. There’s an interjection of “oh god.”
Someone is described as smelling like the “hind end of a minotaur.” A little girl, against her father’s explicit wishes, stows away aboard the Dawn Treader. Back in England, Edmund lies about his age to try to enlist for the war.
If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was cautious and Prince Caspian grim, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, quite simply, fun—a cinematic adventure that retains the spirit (both literarily and theologically) of Lewis’ original treasure. It even, incredibly, gives audiences a hint of his humor. As such, it is without question the best of the series so far.
It’s far from a slavish reproduction, mind you: Fans of the novel will find that the filmmakers took license at times. But the result is just a mouse hair short of wonderful. Dawn Treader is a classic children’s adventure in the vein of Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that takes audiences to a fantastic place and gives them the license to imagine themselves in it. While some movies can stifle creativity—smothering imagination under a blanket of CGI and storytelling orthodoxy—Dawn Treader encourages it. Had I seen this film when I was 8, I would’ve likely gone home and turned the living room into the Dawn Treader’s deck, filled with sofa cushion battlements and sails made from sheets.
Before this film, I think the cinematic Narnia series was a little like Lucy, looking enviously at big-sister Susan. Maybe it was trying too hard to be the next Lord of the Rings or aspire to Harry Potter-level success. It worked so hard to be literary and spectacular that, just maybe, it forgot what the Narnia books were at their core: children’s stories. Meaningful stories, yes. Good stories, absolutely, filled with allegorical heft and layers of meaning … but at their core, they’re meant to be fun.
Dawn Treader found the fun. For two hours, I was engrossed in a land I loved as a child and still love today. I was called into a magical world and I once again felt Aslan tugging at my heart. He wasn’t in my backyard, but it was the next best thing.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.