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What kid hasn't dreamed of being a queen or king in another world? C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" novels merged that fantasy, Christian allegory and high adventure in a recipe that has enchanted generations of readers -- and now, moviegoers. This third installment from the children's series, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," follows the two younger Pevensie siblings back to the magical land of Narnia with their bratty cousin Eustace. And this time, after his disappointing absence in 2008's "Prince Caspian," the fable's lion king/messiah Aslan makes a roaring return. Old Brown Eyes is back.
The film is a throwback to colorful, wholesome adventures like "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" and "Swiss Family Robinson," with rollicking adolescent derring-do, scary (not terrifying) monsters and adorable animal sidekicks. In the capable hands of director Michael Apted (who gave us "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist" and the James Bond feature "The World Is Not Enough"), a potentially syrupy allegory becomes razzle-dazzle children's entertainment, with the religious dimensions gracefully conveyed.
The story opens in World War II-era London as Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), living in their uncle's home, yearn for old friends and adventure in the otherworldly kingdom. Who can blame them, with their snotty younger cousin (Will Poulter) spying and snitching on them? Eustace doesn't believe in faith and fairy tales. He spends his time reading, as he sneers, "books with facts." He isn't actually wearing a sign on his back saying, "Kick me, I'm an atheist," but he might as well be.
Poulter gives the story a needed jolt of conflict and comedy; his performance as the petulant, cowardly blowhard is wicked good. He's delightfully annoying.
Returning to Narnia through the portal of an enchanted painting, the three find themselves aboard the royal galleon Dawn Treader, with King Caspian (swoony Ben Barnes, now with a regal goatee and without his odd exotic accent) and the swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep.
Their expedition to rescue missing lords and collect mystic swords will lead to encounters with a book that conjures magic spells, a shining star in human form, a titanic sea monster and the dread White Witch (the always-extraterrestrial Tilda Swinton in a brief, scary cameo). Lewis' fable, with fauns and dragons and dwarves and Arabian Nights exoticism all jumbled together, doesn't make tons of cosmological sense, but it's undeniably fun.
On their journey each of the children faces temptation, confronts inner demons and experiences a transformative rebirth. The tone is much lighter than in "Prince Caspian," with its dark, intense combat sequences, and so is the look. "Dawn Treader" is suffused with radiant South Seas light. There are scores of hectic, high-spirited, kid-friendly battle scenes, where nary a drop of blood is shed. There's a lot of plot to shoehorn into 115 minutes, and the pace feels breathless, but that's probably fine with the young target audience.
Lewis purists will grouse about "Dawn Treader's" emphasis on sea serpents, dragons, tentacles of evil green mist and one-legged dwarves over the subtler moral battles against temptation, but that's the price of getting a movie bankrolled in mammon-worshiping Hollywood.
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