In the interest of full disclosure—especially since I didn’t actually review the film—I pretty much detested The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). A few may recall that it snagged the number-three slot on my Worst of 2005 list (“Just about the most tedious two hours I spent in a theater this year”). The fact that I didn’t hate the just-released sequel, Prince Caspian, could simply be the result of very low expectations. More to the point, if you ate up the first film and just couldn’t get enough of its crypto-religious fantasy, those adorable Pevensie children and the assorted talking animals, this outing may please you somewhat less.
Prince Caspian is darker in tone—and the fact that it’s 1,300 years later in Narnia (though inexplicably only a year later in our world) means that such old friends as Mr. Tumnus and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver have long since done the mortal coil shuffling-off routine. Whether replacing them with a chatty rodent (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and a coolly reasoning badger (voiced by Ken Stott, Charlie Wilson’s War) is sufficient recompense is a personal call. On the other hand, bringing in Peter Dinklage as the sarcastic dwarf Trumpkin is very much in the film’s favor. (Casting Dinklage is always in a film’s favor.)
The story this round is set up in Narnia, in a sequence of Lord of the Rings-lite intrigue (truth to tell, this part of the film is alarmingly reminiscent of Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King). Evil usurper King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto, Paris, Je T’Aime) tries to murder rightful heir to the throne Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes, Stardust, who seems to have been cast more for his Tiger Beat factor than his acting skills). Fortunately, Caspian has a kind of ersatz Dumbledore mentor, Dr. Cornelius (Vincent Grass, a kind of ersatz Michael Gambon), who packs the prince off to the woods, leaving Miraz’s archers to re-enact the last scene of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood on an empty bed—resulting in a shower of feathers instead of the expected arterial spray.
All this is really just to get Caspian to blow Aslan’s horn (keep your remarks to yourselves) and summon the Pevensies back to Narnia and their Aslan-given status as kings and queens of the realm. And all that is really just to get some pretty nifty battles underway for the future of Narnia.
The battles here are surprisingly brutish—even if PG-rated bloodless—and even more surprisingly well done. That uber-lame “big battle” at the end of the first film that looked like a rumble among dressed-up mead guzzlers at a Renaissance fair is more than made up for with two large-scale battle scenes. Better yet, the action in these set pieces is refreshingly coherent—an increasing rarity in these days of frenzied cutting as a substitute for well-choreographed mayhem. Equally admirable is a truly chilling scene (one that would have petrified me as a child) where Caspian is bamboozled into conjuring the White Witch (an unbilled Tilda Swinton) back to life.
These qualities—and much better pacing—raise the film considerably above the original, as does keeping Aslan the magic Lion (aka the CGI Christ) off the screen for most of the proceedings. Yes, I know that C.S. Lewis intended these books as Christian parables for children, but Aslan—at least as presented in the films and voiced by Liam Neeson—is such a smug, self-satisfied character (not to mention a very CGI-looking effect) that he’s more tiresome than inspiring. That he allows much misery, carnage and assorted destruction to take place while he’s on a marathon sulk in the woods because the people (and assorted anthropomorphic livestock) have forgotten him may be an arguable theological point, but it hardly makes him admirable. When he finally gets his Aslan-ex-machina moment—thanks to the intercession of the rather dreary youngest Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and her unwavering faith in him (subtle, this ain’t)—he simply shows up to go all Old Testament on the bad guys, which seems a little on the mixed-message side.
That the film finally falls prey to Return of the King (2003) syndrome by going on and on after the action to an “OK, end already” point hardly helps. Battle scenes and the White Witch sequence to one side, Prince Caspian suffers a bit on the effects side—just like its predecessor, only a little more so. For whatever reason, the CGI beavers of the first film were more believable than the CGI badger here. (Now, there’s a sentence you won’t see every day!) Still, as a fantasy action movie, there’s enough about Prince Caspian that works to make it an enjoyable rather than punishing experience. Rated PG for epic battle action and violence.