Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/16/08 00:05:08

"Don't Forget To Have Your Deities Spayed Or Neutered!"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

In recent years, when a well-known commercial property is chosen to be adapted for the screen, presumably in the hopes of jump-starting another lucrative film franchise, the people in charge have tended to make the initial entry as conventional and unsurprising as humanly possible in an effort to avoid alienating viewers--both long-times fans of the property in question as well as newcomers to the fold--and dooming those all-important sequel plans before they ever have a chance to get off the ground. (In other words, they don’t want another financial misstep like Ang Lee’s trippy “Hulk,“ no matter how good of a film it turned out to be.)If the initial film is a big enough hit, however, the producers might allow the filmmakers to take a few more artistic chances with the follow-up installments on the assumption that they already have a base audience that will turn out in droves no matter what appears on the screen. This is why films like “Spider-Man 2,” “Batman Returns” and the later Harry Potters episodes were so much more intriguing than their relatively square predecessors.

Walking into “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,,” the second chapter of C.S. Lewis’ acclaimed series of children‘s books, I found myself hoping against hope that the same thing was about to happen again. After all, the previous film in the franchise, 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was as profoundly dull as any fantasy film to come along in recent years--the only things that I (and I’m guessing many of you) can actually remember from that film are a few tasty moments from Tilda Swinton as the monstrous White Witch and a truly bizarre sequence in which Santa Claus arrives out of nowhere to distribute deadly weapons to the young heroes (who knew there was such a thing as a wartime Santa?)--and it made so much money that it ensured that the producers would be able to spin out additional films for years to come and could spread their artistic wings knowing full well that audiences would indeed come out in droves to see what they came up with next. Alas, whatever foolhardy hopes one might have once harbored regarding “Prince Caspian” becoming some kind of artistic triumph will be dashed aside within its first few minutes and, much like the film itself, they are never allowed to recover.

When we last saw our young heroes, the Pevensie children--Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and adorable little Lucy (Georgie Henley), they had saved Narnia from the forces of the White Witch and had gone on to rule the land for many years before going back through the magical wardrobe to our comparatively dreary world, only to discover that what felt like decades in Narnia only came across as a few minutes in our time. When we catch up with them here, it is one year later, they are back in London and all four slightly bummed out over the fact that they used to rule an entire country for decades in another world and now they have to go back to living the lives of ordinary schnook schoolchildren. Although the famed wardrobe that led them to Narnia in the first place is nowhere to be seen, the kids do discover a new passage to the land in a subway tunnel and while they have a few minutes of fun frolicking on the beach, one of them notices something that wasn’t there when they were there a year earlier--ancient ruins. Check that--ancient ruins of the place where they lived when they ruled Narnia. Before long, they find out the bizarre truth--one year of life in our time is equal to about 1300 Narnia years and virtually everything that they knew and loved about the land has long since returned to the dust or 1’s and 0’s from whence they came.

As they soon discover, the Pevensies have been brought back to Narnia for a reason. It turns out that just after they returned home all those centuries ago, Aslan--the talking lion/Jesus figure whom they fought for in the previous film--left Narnia soon after they did and the country was taken over shortly thereafter by the vile Telmarines. Alas, all is not well on the Telmarine front either as the heir to the throne, the hunky young Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), finds his life in danger at the hands of his own uncle, the treacherous King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who wants to eliminate Caspian in order to ensure that his newborn son becomes the next king. Having escaped one murder plot already, Caspian flees into the woods and summons the Pevensies to come and help him and the rag-tag bunch of disenfranchised Narnians he has managed to recruit--including the grumpy-but-loveable dwarf Trumpkin (a clearly slumming Peter Dinklage, looking frighteningly like a Mini-Christopher Lambert), grumpy-but devious dwarf Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), a black centaur (Cronell S. John) who fills the film’s Lando Calrissian spot and a swashbuckling mouse named Reepicheep (Eddie Izzard)--to defeat his uncle’s forces and return him to power. In other words, they and the Narnians are being asked to help overthrow a new usurper to the throne in favor of the previous usurper, an idea that none of the Narnians (whose people were largely decimated by his ancestors) seems to have any sort of quarrel with , presumably because he is so dreamy to look at. Then again, even if anyone did raise any objections, they would probably be lost in the din of the endless battle sequences that make up most of the second half of the film that are relieved only by brief breaks for lessons about faith and the perils of losing it, treachery amongst the ranks of both sides of the battle and even some brief appearances from a couple of familiar faces from the first film.

“Prince Caspian” would seem to have all the ingredients for an epic fantasy adventure--extended fight scenes, cute talking animals, a complex mythology, adorable kids, hateful villains and a lavish visual effects budget--but as the film plods along, it only serves as yet another reminder that you can have all of the ingredients for an epic at your disposal and yet they don’t mean anything if you don’t have an epic vision with which to deploy them. Returning director Andrew Adamson lacks that sort of epic vision and as a result, the experience of watching the film is a lot like listening to the world’s most exciting bedtime story being read by someone with the world’s most grating monotone--all the giddy fun and energy that you would assume might be there is sucked out and replaced with a mounting sense of tedium that is enough to send viewers into slumberland. The battle scenes are long and elaborately drawn out but the have been staged in such a perfunctory manner that they never generate any real thrills or excitement for viewers--they feel more like cut scenes from the inevitable video game adaptation than anything else. The rest of the film is just as blah and formulaic as those scenes--it knows how to create magical lands but not how to fill them with anything especially magical. The characters are blah (even the talking badgers are lacking a certain je ne sais quois) and are afforded only one character trait apiece (Peter is too prideful, Susan is a loner, Edmund is a dope, Lucy is filled with eternal faith and good cheer, Caspian is noble, the good dwarf is casually cynical and the bad guys are power-hungry rotters). The storyline is the kind of standard-issue fantasy nonsense that we have seen a thousand times before and it manages to be both incredibly simplistic and unfathomably convoluted without ever getting around to being interesting. Of course, matters aren’t exactly helped by the fact that there is never any doubt about where the story is heading, who will triumph and who will be soundly defeated--the only suspense comes from the question of whether anyone will be awake by the time it finally concludes. Even more frustrating is the fact that the film introduces a couple of potentially intriguing plot developments and then just as quickly abandons them. One, as I mentioned earlier, is the idea of the kids being unable to fully readjust to living as kids in the real world after serving as royalty in Narnia. The other is the sort-of crush that half-heartedly develops between Caspian and Susan, though this is probably abandoned because the filmmakers know that it couldn’t possibly work out between them--after all, she is approximately 1300 years older and he is approximately 1300 times prettier.

Then again, maybe the pervasive sense of dullness was a tactical move on the part of the filmmakers to make viewers so woozy that they will find themselves overlooking the more questionable aspects of the film. For one thing, while it is no secret that C.S. Lewis intended his “Narnia” stories to serve as thinly veiled Christian parables, the heavy-handedness with which “Prince Caspian” deploys its religious elements is a little startling and at times borderline offensive. All the talk about keeping one’s faith is okay, if laid on a little thick (“The last time I didn’t believe, I wound up looking pretty stupid”), and I am even willing to overlook the bit where it is proclaimed that “Narnia was never right unless a son of Adam was the king.” What I do find questionable is the way in which all of the bad guys are of a swarthier and more evidently ethnic persuasion than anyone else in the film while all the heroes (even the one born of the bad guys) is a clean-cut and well-scrubbed WASP type and serves as a subtle reinforcement to young minds that anyone even vaguely foreign-looking is clearly not to be trusted and will do anything--even the murder of their own people--to achieve their diabolical goals and spread their poison as far throughout the world as possible. For another thing, the film is violent--really, really violent. Oh sure, we don’t see very much blood actually being shed, outside of a photogenic cut or two sported by our noble heroes, but the levels of carnage that are shown are enough to raise the eyebrows of even the most confirmed action fanatics. The kids alone rack up a body count with their swordplay and arrow-shooting that might rival that of the Wild Bunch if anyone actually sat down to count the corpses. (As with the first film, it is evident that for all the Christian beliefs being espoused, neither C.S. Lewis nor the filmmakers apparently ever made it to the part in the Bible about turning the other cheek.) Factor in the final battle and the number of bodies left in its wake and you have a film that is so chock-full of stabbings, slashing and skewering that even the most indulgent moviegoers may find themselves wondering how in the hell it managed to squeak by with a “PG” rating instead of the “PG-13” that it so richly deserves.

It should be noted, in all fairness, that many of the objections that I have to “Prince Caspian” are the same ones that I had with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.“ Of course, there were plenty of moviegoers back then who felt somewhat differently than I did and I am fairly certain that if you enjoyed that film, you will probably feel the same about this one since, despite one character’s assurances that one cannot easily predict what will be based on what has already happened, it is more or less the exact same thing. However, if you are crazy enough to believe that family fantasy fun should at least contain trace elements of actual fantasy and/or fun, you might want to give this one a pass and spend your time looking up better genre efforts that you might have missed, such as the thoroughly underrated “Mirrormask” or the more recent “Spiderwick Chronicles.” Those films were smart, exciting, visually impressive and engaging for viewers of all ages and religions, qualities that are severely lacking in “Prince Caspian.” Frankly, the best thing that I can say about it is that it is better than the utterly misbegotten “The Golden Compass.” The bad news, however, is that it isn’t that much better.

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