One year has passed in the real world since the events of Prince Caspian, and things have changed a great deal for the Pevensie's. Susan and Peter are enjoying life in America with their mom and dad, but unfortunately, Lucy and Edmund are stuck living with their obnoxious cousin (which is quite an understatement), Eustace Scrubb. Eustace must have been born with a pretty large stick up his behind, because despite his early age, he masterfully wields a disposition that could only be compared to the likes of a crotchety old man. He finds anyone or anything an insufferable inconvenience to his existence, has a poor 'give me that it's mine' mentality, and often spends time thinking of ways to make his cousins lives even more miserable. Unfortunately for Eustace, word on the telephone has already dampened his cousins mood - The reunion with their parents and siblings is postponed, and they have to stay with the Scrubb's for another three months. In an effort to cheer themselves up, the disheartened Pevensie's examine a painting that features a ship sailing on a vast ocean - A ship that strangely looks reminiscent of a Narnian vessel. Of course, their cousin Eustace was eavesdropping on their conversation about the magical land, and calls them out as ninnies for believing in such hogwash. Just then, the painting comes alive and transports Lucy, Edmund, and yes, even their whiny brat of a cousin, to the world of Narnia. It isn't long before they find themselves aboard The Dawn Treader, a ship that belongs to their old friend, King Caspian.
Three years have passed since their last adventure with Caspian. Since their departure, the King has successfully brought peace across all the land. Caspian's work wasn't done however, as he's embarked on a journey to find the seven lost Lords of Narnia, previously banished by his power hungry uncle. Edmund and Lucy, along with Reepicheep, assist Caspian in exploring uncharted waters in order to find them. However, an evil mist composed of pure evil will test them every step of the way, with temptations of gold, beauty, and power. And who knows what else dwells that far out in the sea...
Much like the transition in storytelling between the first and second films, the plot for Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been streamlined into something a bit more linear than its predecessors. This may have worked well enough for Prince Caspian, but this particular C.S. Lewis classic doesn't transfer as well to the big screen. The big draw in the film series thus far has been the epic scope and sheer imagination of Narnia itself - The beautiful landscapes, the mystical creatures, and the magic behind it all. Narnia truly felt like an entirely open world, ripe for us to visit from our home theater at any time. However, this film mostly takes place on the Dawn Treader itself, or just off-shore whatever island they come across in Narnia's uncharted waters. Being able to explore so many different parts of this magical world theoretically could have made this film feel larger in scale than the ones that came before it, but instead, it suffers from a 'sandbox' effect. It would be easy for me to pin this solely on Director Michael Apted, but he was dealing with a budget that was considerably less than what Prince Caspian had been allotted (a reduction of about $85 million dollars). Then again, there are plenty of artists out there that do so much more with so much less, so despite some of the backroom dealings that financially hindered this film, I think Apted could have done a little more to make this magical world feel as expansive as it previously did.
Another aspect of Dawn Treader I find to be a disappointment is, sadly, the character development. Lucy's story arc deals with her reaching a very vulnerable age - She's growing up and beginning to care about boys, but she's too insecure with her own looks to do anything about it, and wishes she could be prettier like her sister, Susan. And Edmund? Well, he finally has to come to terms with being second best. Susan and Peter are now too old to return to Narnia, so Edmund was looking forward to finally being top dog. That proves problematic aboard the deck of the Dawn Treader however, as it's King Caspian's orders that reign supreme there. Eustace's arc is predictably more straightforward though. He's such an annoying nincompoop with a brain seeded in logic and a heart that's lacking in faith, so he's to learn something new about himself in Narnia that makes him less of a twerp. These developing ideas seem to be pretty solid on paper, but their execution was fairly minimal, and I never truly felt like any of the main characters grew... with perhaps the exception of Eustace, which is odd considering Lucy and Edmund really had more interesting stories to tell.
When all is said and done, all of my criticisms boil down to one thing - Dawn Treader really feels more like Narnia-Light than an epic adventure in a magical land. Don't take that to mean that this is a bad film though, it's just the weakest film amongst the three that have been released thus far. Since the story is more linear than the previous two, the runtime has wisely been reduced to less than two hours. Now, although it's true that a longer runtime could have made this film feel more epic with the right direction, I'm glad the director took the gamble to shorten the length of the film, as it ensured a brisk pace that never left me tapping my fingers, wondering when the story would progress. Also, despite the fact that Dawn Treader seemingly takes place in a 'sandbox' world, Michael Apted was able to return that magical storybook vibe that was missing from Prince Caspian. Other highlights from the film include plenty of swashbuckling adventure, an encounter with a feisty dragon, a visit to Aslan's fabled land, and a battle with a nasty Predator-faced sea serpent. Sure, I would have preferred that Narnia felt as vast as the novel made it seem, as well as well as some more character depth. But, with that being said, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is still a fun and nearly painless ride (Eustace can certainly be annoying but, that's exactly how he's supposed to be), and although it's the weakest entry thus far, I still had a good enough time in Edmund and Lucy's latest quest to want to go back and watch it again sometime in the near future.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader sails its way onto Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, and although it looks pretty dang good, there's been a lot of debate in regards to how it's been presented. Not over the picture quality itself mind you, but rather the lack of the original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Instead, this film is presented in a more 16x9 friendly 1.78:1 ratio. Now before you start running and screaming to the hills - claiming that the studios are robbing us of OAR's so they can appeal to the Joe-six-packs of the world by filling their HDTV screens - there is some gray area here. This was the choice of the Director himself, Michael Apted. He feels that when you're watching a film at home on a widescreen display, the experience becomes 'more intimate' when most, or all of the screen is being utilized. I can understand where Mr. Apted is coming from - When you're watching a film, you're basically looking through a window into another world. Therefore, the larger the window, the more realistic that world must seem. So, instead of cropping the picture as many of you might fear, Apted merely opened the matte to give us more information on the screen. Unfortunately, this doesn't equate to giving us more bang for our buck.
Personally, I bought an HDTV, as well as the rest of my home theater equipment, so I could faithfully reproduce the theatrical experience at home in my living room... that is, without the sticky floors, obnoxious chatter and screaming kids. That not only includes a faithful representation of the source (yes, film grain and all), but the original shot compositions the director intended to be seen. I'm a real stickler about this, because a shot that's composed for a certain aspect ratio will help to convey a certain tone, trigger a certain emotion. When that aspect ratio is tinkered with, the effect can be drastically reduced. Now, in the case of the Dawn Treader (which I did not see in theaters), wasted space on the top and bottom of the screen was pretty obvious at times. The professional shot composition that's so vital in a theatrical exhibition was gone, and ultimately made my first experience with Dawn Treader seem more like a 'straight to home video' event. It's a shame, really. I say, if you're going to want to fill up someone's HDTV at home, then you should present it in the same aspect ratio in theaters.
Well, with that out of the way, I'm pleased to report that the picture quality of Dawn Treader is fantastic. There's really nothing present in the way of film grain, but fear not, because Dawn Treader was shot digitally. There's no digital noise reduction here, nor are there any other additional tweaks to 'improve' the picture, such as edge enhancement. Furthermore, there are no compression issues to speak of either. Colors are bold and lush, bringing the island of the Dufflepuds and the home of the green mist to life in a way you really have to see to believe. Speaking of eye candy, the clarity and detail on this release is practically flawless. So flawless in fact, that some of the special effects really show that they're not as up to par as they could/should have been. But, considering this film had an $85 million budget cut compared to Prince Caspian, I think the final product isn't bad at all.
The only thing that could have been better during certain scenes, is the contrast. Some of the brighter scenes have a tendency to look slightly washed out, but this is an artistic choice that was made by the director, so I'm not going to fault the transfer we have here as a result. Despite the slightly washed out look due to the slightly blown out contrast however, blacks remain deep and inky. All in all from a technical standpoint, Dawn Treader is really a winner from beginning to end. Video purists should find the picture quality itself to be nothing short of amazing, but they'll most likely be turned off by the change in the aspect ratio.
*Note - I feel that the image quality itself is deserving of a 4.5, but considering the aspect ratio was changed specifically for this release, I felt it was appropriate to lower the score to a solid 4.
Considering the video presentation was altered to be more 'home format' friendly, I guess it's no surprise that the original 7.1 track has been whittled down to a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Again, there's nothing wrong on the technical side of the 5.1 mix - dynamic range is solid, the LFE is impressive, surround effects are pinpoint, the clarity of sound effects and dialogue never waver, and after all is said and done, can probably be considered a demo worthy sonic experience. However, it's disappointing that Fox got rid of two channels. I guess I can understand the reasoning behind it - Most people with an average home theater probably only have a basic 5.1 setup. But so what? A 7.1 mix would just down-mix in a receiver to 5.1, so why not let those of us with 7.1 setups at home enjoy what we have? The loss of two channels aside, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a heavy hitter in the audio department for sure.
Let's start with another hotly debated topic - The packaging. Theoretically, this could have been one of the nicest, most creative sets to come out in recent memory. I mean, the packaging looks absolutely gorgeous - The slipcover houses a fold-out cardboard style package, which has three sections once opened up. The artwork all around is breathtakingly beautiful, and the fold out tab that houses a disc in the center section is a clever touch. Unfortunately, 'good looks' is all this package really has to offer.
The discs in each end of the fold-out case are contained in cardboard sleeves. Cardboard sleeves are pretty much the bane of my existence, and despite the fact that Blu-ray discs are more scratch resistant than DVD's, Fox has shown us exactly why cardboard packaging is still a bad idea with this release. The left side of the fold-out contains the film itself, and the disc was literally glued inside the sleeve. So, I took out a microfiber cloth and ran it under some water, and spent a good ten minutes scrubbing the disc until it was in pristine condition so I could actually watch the film. The DVD copy of Dawn Treader contained on the right side of the fold-out was a bit of a mess as well. It wasn't glued to the sleeve itself, but it did have quite a bit of glue residue on it, not to mention the DVD was scuffed up. Furthermore, putting the discs back into the sleeves resulted in more glue residue sticking to the discs. At least the Digital Copy on the center flap was held in place by a hub, but even that seems iffy. The hub that holds the disc in place is a round piece of rubber, and there's no plastic underside for the disc to rest in. Ah well. The silver lining here is that behind the center section are some pretty nice promo pics and postcards contained within a booklet.
Needless to say, I was really disappointed with Fox for ruining yet another one of its releases with cardboard packaging. I was so disappointed in fact, that I actually went and bought the single disc edition at Wal-Mart because it comes in a regular Blu-ray case, despite the fact that version has no special features.
Packaging aside, the supplements featured on this release aren't expansive, but the menu you'll navigate to access them is pretty nifty. Once you click on 'Extras' from the main menu, you'll be given access to a nautical map that will grant you access to 'explore' five islands, as well as the Dawn Treader itself. Each of these 'islands' contain their share of brief special features. For example, each place will contain an 'Explore' and 'Discovery' short (and by short, we're talking less than a minute), which do nothing more than introduce the various locations and characters in the film. Here's what you'll find on the 'map':
-Explore Goldwater Island
-Deleted Scenes - Four scenes are included here, and honestly, they wouldn't have added much to Dawn Treader
-The Epic Continues - A very short, almost promotional piece, offers up people from behind-the-scenes as well as some of the cast to discuss the latest Narnia flick.
-Explore Magician's Island
-Commentary by Director Michael Apted and Producer Mark Johnson - For those of you out there that really want to hear why the Director chose to make this 1.78:1 for home video, look no further. Apted comments within the first few minutes of the commentary to state his case. The rest of the commentary is probably the most enjoyable experience on the supplemental side of things, as the conversation is always interesting and never too tech-ish, and I actually gained a little more appreciation for what the film had to offer based on what they had to say about the production. A must listen for anyone who's a fan, or perhaps merely curious about certain aspects of the film.
Dawn Treader - Just a quick note - This is the meatiest part of the extras map, so those of you who don't want to take the time to hop around a map with your remote to view shorts that are a minute or so in length, this is the section you'll want to spend the most time in. With the exception of the commentary on Magician's Island, of course.
-King Caspian's Guide to the Dawn Treader - An expansive enough tour of the ship featured in the film.
-The Secret Island's: Untold Adventures of the Dawn Treader - A 7 minute animated short, worth checking out!
-In Character with Liam Neeson - As implied, Neeson discusses bringing his character Aslan to life in a sound booth.
-In Character with Georgie Henley and Will Poulter - Portraying Lucy and Eustace respectively, Henley and Poulter discuss their experience while exploring their characters.
-Direct Effect: Michael Apted - The Director discusses some of the difficulties in tackling an already well established franchise. Definitely worth watching!
-Making a Scene - Sort of a mini behind-the-scenes featurette about the scene where the kids get sucked into Narnia.
The Dark Island
-Explore the Dark Island
-White Witch Discovery
-Portal to Narnia: A Painting Comes to Life - This explores the 'to Narnia' scene as well, but discusses the special effects side of making the scene.
-Good vs. Evil: Battle on the Sea - A behind-the-scenes look at filming the sea serpent scene.
-Explore Ramandu's Island
-Search for the Seven Swords Match Game - Just a simple matching game for the kiddies.
VFX Progression - This featurette further explores the special effects that brought many scenes throughout the entirety of the film to life.
All in all, it's a pretty impressive layout, and there's certainly enough here to keep most people satisfied. However, a 'play all' function in most of these locations would have been helpful, or even perhaps a more basic menu as an option for those that just want to get down to business.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is certainly the weakest entry in the series thus far, feeling more like Narnia-Light than an actual voyage across the seas of a massive, magical world. That being said, I still found this flick to have more than enough redeeming qualities to have a good time and even consider watching it again in the near future. But, just because I found it to be a fun ride doesn't necessarily mean you're going to as well. I get that. The lack of well executed character and plot development this time around is rather disappointing, and hopefully Dawn Treader is more of a misstep in the franchise as a whole as opposed to a taste of things to come. The audio and video, despite being tweaked to be more appealing to the Joe-six-pack viewer at home, are still quite impressive. Furthermore, the special features are probably going to appeal to most people, and even if they don't, at least there's an impressive commentary available. All in all, Dawn Treader earns a recommended rating, albeit a very reluctant one. This film isn't going to be for everyone, and the horrible experience I had with this shoddy packaging (as well as many other people), really turns me off from this release. If you don't care about special features, DVD or digital copies of the film, Wal-Mart carries a bare-bones single disc edition. It's what I ultimately went for with my money. After all, having the film disc itself preserved as well as possible is what's most important in my collection.