The first two films adapted from C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” series were almost too good to be true.
Here was a pair of big-budget, handsomely crafted and well-received Hollywood movies that not only did justice to Lewis’ elaborate fantasy world but also captured the nuances of the Christian faith from which it grew. Such successful intermingling of deep belief and pop art is rare.
Exactly how rare is proven by “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third film in the franchise. Despite (or more likely because of) the addition of 3-D, the magic is diminished, leaving little more than a rush of adventuresome busyness. More frustrating is the fact that Lewis has been lost. What was a probing, theological narrative from one of the great Christian thinkers has been reduced to a childish morality play.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” focuses on the younger two of the Pevensie siblings, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley). Along with their insufferable cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), the pair is brought back to Narnia to help Prince Caspian retrieve seven golden swords. Along the way, each child faces a moral challenge. Edmund is tempted by the allure of absolute power; Lucy grows envious of her older sister Susan’s beauty; Eustace, who despises the magical nature of Narnia, nonetheless tries to steal some of its treasure. Lessons, needless to say, are dutifully learned.
This is all well and good, but the Narnia series – indeed, Christianity itself – offers much more. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” explored the delicate details of the Christian faith, and one of the wonderful things about the first two movies is the way they reflected that theological curiosity. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” wrestled with the notion of sacramental sacrifice, while “Prince Caspian” took place in a world with a seemingly absent God. It explored some of the toughest issues believers face: What happens when God feels far away? What happens when the faithful fail? Neither movie was a vague morality play or – even worse - a strident, religious tract. They were stories, allegories. Parables, in fact.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” wants to stay vague. It’s careful to take a strong moral stand, but won’t go any further. (In the way it at once panders to and tiptoes around the Christian market, it reminds me of 2006’s “The Nativity Story.”) The problem of “Dawn Treader” points to a larger difficulty when it comes to Christianity and art. Too often, the Christian faith is equated with morality and nothing more. But if a movie simply says that stealing is bad – as is the case with “Dawn Treader” – does that really distinguish its brand of religion from the tenets of, say, Hinduism or Islam? When this happens – when the Christian faith is watered down to lessons about right and wrong - what do we lose?