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Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/19/08 10:40:01

"It's Narnier!"
3 stars (Just Average)

In my review for “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” I complained that the movie, while technically inspired, lacked heart and soul. The same gripe can now be made of its sequel, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” although I’m hesitant to gripe too much - I should instead be grateful that the follow-up is a better film, more enjoyable, more solid, more satisfying as a fantasy adventure. It’s more or less what the first movie should have been: a (mostly) captivating epic.

Almost all of the movie’s flaws stem from the screenplay. Screenwriters Andrew Adamson (who also directed, his first helming effort since 2005’s “Wardrobe”), Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely felt the need to pad C.S. Lewis’ story to a ridiculous extent, taking an already overlong plot and stretching it to its breaking point. Here, the writers add an entire second act battle sequence, one that’s structured so poorly that it actually feels like the end of the film; I was surprised, and rather disheartened, to learn there was still an hour or so to go. Other additions include romantic eye-batting between the titular hero (Ben Barnes) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) and a grumbly bit of rivalry between Caspian and Peter (William Moseley). Neither of these character interludes amount to anything, and both only serve to stretch the proceedings even further.

To be fair, the screenwriters also do an admirable job of streamlining the two plotlines of Lewis’ book. The script actually manages to compress a few scenarios by putting the children of “Wardrobe” and Caspian on parallel tracks for the first act of the film, a structure which does the story well, getting all the exposition out in the open without it actually feeling like exposition. And while it’s plenty bloated, the overall film also has an epic sweep to it that creates a sharp sense of big-scale storytelling.

The film opens in the middle of some dark political conflict in a far-away kingdom: Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) is the Telmarine leader serving as acting ruler until his nephew, Prince Caspian, is old enough to take the throne. Little does Caspian know that Miraz killed his father years ago - and now that Miraz has become a father to a boy, he’s out to kill the prince as well, securing eternal rule for his own bloodline. With the aid of his kindly professor (Vincent Grass), Caspian escapes into the woods of Narnia, where he uses an ancient magic horn to summon the old kings and queens of Narnia.

Meanwhile, back in our own world, the Penvensie children - Peter, Susan, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - are lamenting their return to WWII-era England. After all, in the first film, they lived for decades as rulers of Narnia, but now they’re back to being school kids. Suddenly, the underground station around them disappears, and they find themselves on a beach in Narnia. (After the mystery and gentle wonder of the wardrobe, this subway station passage is something of a letdown. Blame Lewis, who created the weaker concept.)

They quickly learn that one year back home equals 1,300 years in Narnia. Their old castle is nothing but ancient ruins now, and the Narnians themselves have slipped into near-extinction thanks to the iron fist of Telmarine rule.

The rest of the story sounds simple: the children team up with Caspian and lead an army against Miraz and his forces, in hopes of restoring the prince to the throne and Narnia to its former glory. Oh, but it’s far from simple. We get that unnecessary mid-movie battle (a thrilling sequence, to be sure, but one that deflates what follows by letting the movie peak too early), then a retreat, then an aside involving the Ice Queen (Tilda Swinton, in another scene that works quite well on its own but causes the overall picture to drag), then preparations for battle, then a lengthy one-on-one fight that also seems like the Big Finish, but no, there’s yet another giant battle, and…

You get the point. “Caspian” suffers the same fate as “Wardrobe”: a riveting, snappy first half brought down by a mediocre, sluggish second half. At least the “Lord of the Rings”-ish battle scenes fit the overall tone this time.

Better still, the snappy first half is tighter, and tenser, and more fulfilling - it provides the audience with a sense of urgency, letting us know the stakes of the game early on. Adamson then mixes in some thrilling fairy tale imagery, and we’re hooked enough to carry us through the lesser second half.

Much was said when “Wardrobe” hit theaters about the franchise’s use of Christian allegory, with some calling the film too heavy-handed in the Aslan-as-Christ-figure department. I disagreed, feeling that the symbolism was there if you wanted to find it, but overall the screenplay rushed through its points so clumsily that it didn’t really read as Biblical metaphor. For “Caspian,” the themes are more clearly defined (although not very obtrusive) - a fact which makes their failures more troubling.

For starters, there’s a whole subplot about Aslan (the giant talking lion, voiced again by Liam Neeson) refusing to get involved with the current war. He only reveals himself to little Lucy, who believes in him while others don’t. The allegory here is all about the power of faith in the face of dissent; Lucy’s faith winds up saving Narnia. But the message is a little mixed. As my colleague Curt Holman pointed out, Aslan’s intentional inaction in a time of great bloodshed doesn’t make him a messiah; it makes him kind of a jerk.

More tellingly, though, Aslan isn’t necessary at all to the overall story, making him just one more element that bogs everything down. “Caspian” clocks in at 144 minutes, about the same length as “Wardrobe.” And while my daughter sat through the whole darn thing wide-eyed and duly thrilled throughout (a far cry from the bored girl who fidgeted her way through “Speed Racer” last week), which is always a good barometer for judging the success of family films, it’s also impossible to imagine how much more successful the film might have been with a solid trim. As is, “Caspian” is a good film - beautifully crafted, well acted - whose overlong story earns admiration, but not enthusiasm.

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