When Disney dropped the Narnia franchise after the second installment, Prince Caspian, posted what were in their minds disappointing box office returns, the future of the series was doubtful. Thankfully, Fox have picked up where they left off and put out a third entry, which also happens to be the strongest.
The changes are reflected – admittedly coincidentally – in the film’s story. Older siblings Peter and Susan are never again to return to Narnia, though the efforts of William Moseley and Anna Popplewell aren’t entirely forgotten; both crop up here in small cameos. That leaves room for Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley (as Edmund and Lucy) to reprise their now bulked up and more significant roles. Their third trip to Narnia (accompanied by cowardly cousin Eustace Scrubb) is far from perfect, but it offers enough family entertainment to deserve recommendation.
The film’s wandering narrative (very Odyssey-esque) takes our heroes (who again have charismatic support from Ben Barnes as Caspian) island-hopping across the eastern seas, past the Lone Islands and into unchartered waters, where an ‘evil’ is lurking, and beyond which Aslan’s own country is rumoured to lie. The story both aids and hinders the film. On the plus side, there are plenty of gorgeous vistas to enjoy, and lots of interesting side plots as our leads search for the seven swords which will help them defeat the evil, but it also fragments the narrative and creates and oddly disjointed feeling: the film is long for a family picture, but consists of several smaller segments, some of which work better than others.
The first half an hour is pacy and a little uneven; new director Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough, Amazing Graze) wastes no time in getting the three youngsters back into the fantasy, and in no time they’re reunited with Caspian, now king, and meet the members of the Dawn Treader’s crew, one of whom is Reepicheep: the brave, talking mouse who featured in the previous film, but whose voice is now provided by Simon Pegg (having previously been Eddie Izzard). From there the island-hopping begins in earnest, and the rather flimsy goal of defeating ‘the evil’ is laid out before them. Some of the set pieces work – a sequence involving a pool of magical water in a cave, for example, serves the plot nicely – and others not so well; the Dufflepuds are disappointing and feel too tacked on to make an impact.
Keynes and Henley are amiable company as our two leads, though they are perhaps not quite as strong as they should be. Henley comes across as the stronger of the two (her character’s obsession with her older sister’s beauty is believable, and one sequence involving a mirror is rather effective); Keynes suffers a little under the weight of responsibility left behind by his on-screen siblings, which ironically mirrors exactly his character’s arc within the film. Will Poulter, as Eustace, could and perhaps should have been the standout performance – his highly strung, jibbering presence is quite effective – but the script isn’t funny enough to do him justice.
All of this builds towards a climax involving a sea serpent that might frighten very young children, but is fairly well done and serves as the storm before the calm, as it were, of the final ten minutes, which remain in the mind as the film’s standout sequence. A beautifully realised, infinitely soaring wave – and genuinely tearful goodbyes – are a satisfying payout at the end of a generally well made film. It would be too much to say Apted has revitalised the franch ise – this is still not as good as it could be – but the third of Lewis’ novels always seemed like it would suit the modern screen and, to a certain extent, it has.