Saturday, May 17, 2008
In 2005, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe introduced film audiences to the Pevensie children Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmond (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley). Little Lucy is the one who opens the door - through a simple wardrobe - to the fantastical world of Narnia. In that first film, the children saved Narnia from the evil White Witch and were crowned as the land's royal rulers before heading back to their own war torn England.
Ben Barnes is Prince Caspian (Disney/Walden Media)
As Prince Caspian begins, we discover that there's new strife in Narnia and its surrounding lands. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), heir to the Telmarine throne, must flee his castle because his evil uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) has ambitious plans that don't involve the young prince alive. As Caspian flees, he blows a horn given to him by his professor (Vincent Grass), and that summons the kings and queens of Narnia, a.k.a. the Pevensie kids. The children, now living in England during World War II, hear the call and are suddenly transported back to Narnia via the London tube. But it's nothing like they remember, for one 1300 years have passed in Narnia. The Golden Age of Narnia is long gone, the wardrobe gateway no longer exists, the White Witch is dead, the majestic lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is nowhere to be found, and the gentle forest creatures fear for their lives. The children discover that Miraz is terrorizing the country and amassing a great army to hunt down Prince Caspian and destroy what's left of Narnia.
The not so bad baddies of Prince Caspian (Disney/Walden Media)
The first film, as with The Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars: A New Hope , benefited from being the first in a series and being the one to introduce us to a brave new world full of wondrous creatures. Prince Caspian , the second book in the series, removes much of what made the first film enjoyable - most notably the impressive Aslan, the delightful talking beavers, and the deliciously evil White Witch. Aslan, sadly, only makes a cameo appearance in Prince Caspian . Then instead of Ray Winstone's talking beaver we get Ken Stott as Trufflehunter, a faithful badger, and Eddie Izzard as Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse. But what's more detrimental to the film is the lack of a really good bad guy, the kind you love to hate. In the first film you had the magnificently imposing White Witch played by Tilda Swinton. Now we get a more human-scaled and far less fun villain in Italy's Sergio Castellitto (who was so utterly charming in Mostly Martha ). Swinton makes an uncredited appearance as the White Witch and that only serves to remind us how good she was and how Miraz is a far inferior nemesis. So while the sweep and battles of Prince Caspian may be more impressive, the content of the second film is far less interesting and stretched too thin over a 140 minute running time.
Plus all the new additions to the Narnia franchise feel stale. Caspian's teacher is much like Harry Potter's Dumbledore with Vincent Grass a plumper version of Michael Gambon; Eddie Izzard essentially does a Brit rodent imitation of Antonio Banderas' swaggering Puss & 'n' Boots from Shrek 2 ; a couple of dwarves as does a forest of trees that comes to the rescue in a crucial battle all feel lifted from Lord of the Rings . Having only read the first volume of C.S. Lewis' books, I don't know how much the film draws on the book and how much it simply rips off from other movies.
Once again, director and co-writer Andrew Adamson, a New Zealander with a background in visual effects and prior directing gigs on the Oscar-nominated Shrek movies, is on board to bring Narnia to the screen. So I might suspect that the Puss & 'n' Boot rip-off comes from him and owes little to Lewis - but that's just a guess. Adamson's co-screenwriters are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and once again the project has the blessing of Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham who serves as a co-producer. The result of their collaboration is a film that looks slickly produced but lacks the passion and vision that made Lord of the Rings so gripping and enjoyable. Prince Caspian , even though it strives for darker tones than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , is still bright, sunny and oh so clean looking. Even the tragic battle at the Telmarine castle is quite bloodless and we don't feel much of a sense of loss because the film doesn't want to mar its sunny disposition with any real violence. Add to that the fresh scrubbed cleanliness of the young stars and you get a wholesome family adventure, safe for all ages, and therefore not very appealing to anyone over 13.
WilliamMoseley and Ben Barnes (Disney/Walden Media)
The casting of the two young male leads - Moseley and Barnes - is a key signal to the audience the film is appealing to: 'tweener girls who fell in love with Leo in Titanic and Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean (Depp's appeal, on the other hand, is broader). Those young girls, with their appetite for repeat viewings of films they like, helped make those films successful. Both Moseley and Barnes are boyishly attractive in a way that makes many10-14 year old girls swoon. There's nothing threatening or dangerous in them, and the romance involves a hug or kiss and nothing more sexual than that. There are no men in this Narnia universe of the likes of Viggo Mortensen's Aragon from Lord of the Ring . And in keeping with the younger, boyish sons of Narnia , the action in the film remains on a tamer level as well.
There has been much made of the Christian overtones of Lewis' books. (But not as much as what was made of the lack of perceived Christian values in The Golden Compass ). As an essayist and author, Lewis frequently wrote about Christian theology and moral problems. Even his science fiction tales contained Christian allegories of good and evil, and elements of such allegories are evident in his Narnia books. Adamson's first film didn't play up the Christian themes or symbolism to any great degree; they were there but could also be easily ignored. In Prince Caspian , these themes and an Anglo sense of superiority feel more prominent. Aslan, for one, comes across like some arrogant god who will not lift a finger to help those in need until they come to him, pay him his due and show that they believe unfailingly in him. Then when the very white and very British Pevensies arrive "to find Narnia a more savage place" than when they left it, you feel a sense of British colonialism rising as if without these "sons of Adam," the people and animals of Narnia will simply resort to their inherent savagery. These white British kids arrive like saviors bringing righteous vengeance and the ability to resurrect the dead (but only the few of their choosing, not the common masses who die in battle).
The quartet of actors playing the children all reveal a plucky British spirit and chin-up attitude. You know, hundreds of Narnians are dying but heck it's okay we'll just fall back, regroup and try again. Don't get me wrong, the young actors are actually quite likable on screen but upon reflection the film does come across as promoting Anglo superiority. In the years that have passed since the first film, you will notice that Keynes as Edmond, and Henley as Lucy seem to have shot up unexpectedly. Keynes in particular as the younger of the two boys is strategically not allowed to stand next to his older screen brother for fear he will look taller and older. But none of the four performers establishes an individual personality. Barnes tries, not very successfully, to inject a little darker more mature tone into the film. The adults this time round - Castellitto, Grass, Peter Dinklage - aren't as memorable as Swinton or James McAvoy (the faunish Mr. Tumnus).
The little people of Narnia: Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis. (Disney/Walden Media)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (PG for epic battle action and violence) is bland family fare with high end production values. It feels about as real as a Disneyland ride, and what a fantasy film needs to do is convince you of is that even the most fanciful thing in its imagined universe is absolutely real.
NOTE: Michael Apted has supposedly signed on to direct the next Narnia installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, & due out in 2010. (At this rate, the kids will be needing walkers by the time the seventh book makes it to the screen.) Since that doesn't sound too exciting, I think I'll just wait, and eagerly too, for Guillermo Del Toro to deliver his adaptation of The Hobbit.