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Dawn Treader recaptures fantasy of Narnia series
Young actors grow into role as Fox takes over classic Lewis story from Disney
Ben Barnes, left, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley are shown in a scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." - photo by Phil Bray

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Will Poulter, Ben Barnes, Simon Pegg

Rated: PG, some violence

Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Bottomline: Outstanding family adventure movie

The Chronicles of Narnia series returns this week — but it almost didn't.

 The second installment, "Prince Caspian," nearly doomed the franchise a few years ago. Walden Media produced the first two films for Disney, who had planned on making Narnia one of their tentpole series.

 The Narnia movies are very expensive to produce, though, and after "Prince Caspian" turned in a mediocre box office performance (it "only" earned $419 million worldwide versus the first film's $745 million), Disney delayed production on the third film and eventually sold the franchise rights to Fox.

At the time, it seemed wise for Disney to cut its losses on what appeared to be a dwindling property.

But now that "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" has arrived, it seems Disney did the wrong thing, because this is by far the best film in the Narnia series.

"Dawn Treader" is also the series' purest fantasy adventure yarn.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a sprawling, epic introduction to the Narnia world, whereas "Prince Caspian" felt more like a trip back in Earth time. It was heavy on combat, light on fantasy, and most in the young cast were not up to the task of portraying not only the rite of passage into adulthood, but also into power.

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" once again revels in the magic of one of the great fantasy worlds in children's literature. Ironically, this movie reminded me of the enduring influence C.S. Lewis' writing has had, which is one of the highest compliments a literary adaptation can earn.

The story sets sail almost immediately and doesn't drop anchor until the end.

The Pevensie family is even more fractured than when we last saw them. Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley), the eldest children, have gone to America and appear in scarcely more than cameos this time.

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are now living with their aunt, uncle and cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). Eustace, he of the logical and scientific mind, scoffs at Lucy and Edmund's tales of Narnia and frequently insults his cousins and their dependent family situation.

We no more learn this tiny bit of exposition before the three children are unexpectedly launched into Narnia, where they are once again needed.

Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace immediately encounter Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg this time, rather than Eddie Izzard). They and the crew of Caspian's ship, the Dawn Treader, embark on a treacherous voyage to the end of the world and must rescue Narnian Lords who have mysteriously disappeared.

Hanging in the balance is, of course, the fate of all Narnia.

The acting here is vastly improved over "Prince Caspian," particularly when it comes to Barnes, who has clearly worked on his craft and matured. Poulter adds much needed comedy, and his presence seems to loosen up the rest of the cast.

For parents, the film's PG rating is appropriate. The violence is a bit much for toddlers but not too intense for most kids around age 7 and older.

Those who simply don't want to see something built on Christianity should know better than to watch a C.S. Lewis adaptation. And purely in storytelling terms, the ending does lay on the moral lesson a bit too heavily.

But frankly, I find it difficult to criticize a film with a clear, positive message when so much family entertainment these days offers loads of violence and sexual innuendo with nothing socially redeeming at all.

The only true criticism I have for "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is that the 3D format adds nothing and traps parents into paying even more.

But fans of this type of family entertainment should bear in mind that if this film doesn't perform better than "Prince Caspian," this will likely be the last Narnia movie. That might motivate some to shell out the 3D surcharge.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.