The third leg of the big-screen voyage through C.S. Lewis' magical kingdom of Narnia finds the intrepid Pevensie kids Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) sailing with Prince-turned-King Caspian (Ben Barnes) on the Narnian ship the Dawn Treader. They're manning what is essentially a floating goodwill embassy/fighting machine, populated by gnarly human sailors, talking animal sailors, and gnarly, talking, half-human, half-animal sailors. Evil is everywhere I mean EEE-VILL, as Narnians pronounce it with a Princess Bride flourish. But the light of goodness and thespiritual influence of the sanctified lion Aslan guide Lucy and Edmund. Aslan even has a salutary effect on their priggish cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), a refreshingly horrid little bourgeois British pill unwillingly brought along for the journey. It's only after Eustace survives being turned into a dragon, and especially after he learns humility at the paws of the King of the Beasts, that the lad embraces the world with new compassion and grace. He is then, one might say, reborn.
Mini-homilies flow like the seas in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ''We have nothing if not belief.'' ''Be strong don't fall to temptation.'' ''You doubt your value; don't run from who you are.'' That's to be expected: Lewis embedded his engrossing, popular fantasies with child-size lessons in virtue, served with an overlay of Christian allegory for those who wish to seek it. What's less expected is that the movie, directed by Michael Apted (taking over from a more sprightly, fantasy-savvy Andrew Adamson, who handled the first two, along with the first two Shreks), looks and feels so wooden, so cheesy.
The Narnians are mad busy. They're searching for the seven lost lords of Narnia, battling adversaries (including a humongous sea serpent), and rescuing fellow kingdom dwellers who have been captured by a slave trader. But little in this production feels either grand and substantial or, on the other hand, light and fun. There's a businesslike, barrel-ahead determination to the proceedings, as if the players (and, in the bigger picture, the producers) were ticking off items on an agenda: three volumes down, four to go if Walden Media commits to the whole shebang. The action sequences are full of dutifully tricky, chessboard fighting lunges and sword swings; the talking special-effects mouse, Reepicheep (previously voiced by Eddie Izzard, now by Simon Pegg), talks a lot. In the thick of a good-and-evil showdown, Tilda Swinton appears for a total of five seconds as the White Witch from the first movie. There's nothing that's not by the book, the clock, the CGI program.
And that includes the option of watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in undistinguished, unnecessary 3-D. I'm more and more frustrated these days by movies that sell the 3-D movie experience as a kind of turbo-charged event, yet the greatest extra we see through plastic movie-theater goggles is the ''dimensionality'' of a sword or a boot or the imaginary fur on a CGI mouse. I'm confounded by the fact that, aside from the Pevensie siblings and their nicely obnoxious cousin, absolutely everything and everyone aboard the Dawn Treader looks one-dimensional, no matter how closely I peer through special specs. Could it be that EEE-VILL is the force behind all this blandness? Help us, Aslan! C