A film review by Craig J. Koban



2008, PG,  137 mins.

Prince Caspian: Ben Barnes / Lucy Pevensie: Georgie Henley / Edmund Pevensie: Skandar Keynes / Peter Pevensie: William Moseley / Susan Pevensie: Anna Popplewell / King Miraz: Sergio Castellitto / Trumpkin: Peter Dinklage / Nikabrik: Warwick Davis / Reepicheep: Eddie Izzard (voice)

Directed by Andrew Adamson / Screenplay by Adamson & Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the novel and characters by C.S. Lewis

If C.S. Lewis were alive today then I think that he would be a bit overwhelmed by the film adaptation of his 1951 fantasy novel, PRINCE CASPIAN, the second in the seven book CHRONICLES OF NARNIA series.  What’s interesting here is how director and co-writer Andrew Adamson takes modest descriptions of skirmishes in Lewis’ source book and drums it up to a prolonged, epic, and CGI-mounted bit of mayhem, which seems all the rage these days.  Without any question, this movie version of PRINCE CASPIAN desperately yearns to be bigger, bolder, livelier, and more action-packed then its antecedent.  On those levels, the film incalculably delivers, but despite the relative breadth of computer pixalized trickery on display here, PRINCE CASPIAN nevertheless  lacks real magic.  

I modestly enjoyed the previous film installment, 2005’s THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, as it was a reasonably successful, quirky and bubbly epic for the pre-teen crowd.  That film was colorful, boisterous, and visual sumptuous and instilled a decent level of awe and wonder in its sights.  Compared to THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (Lewis and Tolkein were contemporaries), NARNIA: PART I had a lighter and far less solemn world, which I think was a good thing.  In CASPIAN there seems to be a rigorous effort to make Narnia darker and drearier, like its LOTR cousin.  I liked the bright hues and sheen of WARDROBE, but here we get a drab and desolate magic kingdom, which also seems to, as a negative consequence, drain out much of the film’s innocent fun.  

Bigger, scarier, and drearier does not necessarily mean better. 

The film continues the story of the WWII Pevensie children, whom in the first installment were whisked away from their bombed-out city – like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ – to a fairy tale mystical land where they met magical creatures like centaurs, minotaurs, fauns, and beavers, not to mention a talking lion named Aslan (a beyond-obvious resurrected Jesus figure with the voice of Qui-Gon Jinn) that helped the tykes overthrown the vicious Queen (played memorably by Tilda Swinton) so they could assume the throne of Narnia.  Near the end of that film the kids lived and grew to adulthood and then were abruptly sent back to their earthly home where they reverted back to children again.  

I remember watching that ending of WARDROBE and wondered where the hearts of these children really were?  Surely, the pageantry of being kings of queens of a mystical land is enticing, but what of their normal home world and the people they left behind?  What of their loving mother and father, the latter whom was battling against the German war machine to ensure their safety?  There is an undercurrent of selfishness to these children, who all seem willing to abandon their devoted family forever so they can live in a strange and exotic world as royalty, without a care in the world towards the anguish of their parents missing them.  Dorothy had our empathy because, deep down, all the magic in the trappings of Oz would never make her abandon her Auntie Em.  The Pevensie kids, on the other hand, have no problem saying “Adios” to mom and dad forever.

I was hoping the PRINCE CASPIAN would address this more, but the film has no time to deal with the more intrinsically interesting story of the children re-acquainting themselves in their early 20th Century homes.  At the beginning of CASPIAN Peter (William Moseley), his younger brother Edmund (Skander Keynes), younger sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) and the youngest sibling, Lucy (Georgie Henley) try to eke out a mortal existence in London.  Character development – a slight problem with the first Narnia film – is an even more taxing concern here, as the film feels less inclined to spend time on the kids on earth and very, very quickly ushers them back to Narnia.  Oh, we do have a few scant moments that dive into their personalities: Peter has become more prone to hooliganism, frequently getting into fights, Susan has to fend off fellow classmates' advances, and Lucy and Edmund…well…they're about the same.  Edmund made an interesting turn as a pseudo-Judas figure in the first film, but here he is not given much to do but follow Peter, whereas Lucy - the character with the most spunk and wide-eyed enthusiasm in WARDROBE - is kind of drab here. 

Anyhoo’, the kids get their wish and are transported back to Narnia, but something is off.  Everything seems to be in the right place, but where once stood castles and strongholds now lay dilapidated ruins.  One ruin in particular is their former seat of power, Cair Paravel (note: seeing the first Narnia is definitely required for seeing this film).  Once there they grab their old clothing and equipment so they can look suitably fantastical.  Soon they meet up with a dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage, one of the film’s few bright spots) and learn indirectly through him that 1300 earth years have passed on Narnia and that all of the Narnians have been subjugated and made nearly extinct by the evil King Miraz (Sergio Castellito).  

The King and his kind are referred to as "Telemarines" (the bad guys, whom are all human in form) and the Narnians are…well…it’s not quite that clear, but I am guessing any talking animal or mystical creature.  I guess that the Pevensie children, being human, would technically be Telemarines, but since they once stood on Narnia’s throne, that would make them essentially Narnians.  One thing is for certain: The film is muddled when it comes to who is who.  Even a bit more exasperating is the fact that the King looks very Arab (the makers were going for a Spanish theme), which sort of reveals the film’s wrongheaded pickings of using ethnic profiling for easy, villainous targets. 

Alas, there is a noble ethnic hero here and it is Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes, long on looks, short on talent) and he is the true heir to the Narnia…or Telemarine…throne.  Much like HAMLET, the Prince’s uncle, the King, wants Caspian dead, seeing as he has just fathered a new baby boy.  Since he knows he’s a dead man, Caspian escapes the castle and retreats to the “old world” of Narnia.  The Pevensie kids learn of all of this and try to hook up with the Prince so they can assemble all the creatures of Narnia for a full on Civil War to defeat the vile King and restore order to lands.  And as for that Jesus-figure that walks on all fours and has a mane?  He has been “gone” for centuries, not being visible to all, but Lucy sure seems to think she has seem him…maybe because she believes in him, whereas others don’t anymore. 

PRINCE CASPIAN, unlike its predecessor, is not nearly as spiritually charged as its first film (thank God).  I kind of laughed at the so-called “religious controversy” over WARDROBE, which dished out very thinly veiled Christian mythology like it were a dime a dozen.  What I found interesting – and considerably ironic – about WARDROBE is that Lewis never intended his works to be Christian parables, but rather fantasy stories with familiar themes.  Upon a second viewing of the film recently, I found myself more distracted by the metaphysical worldview of Narnia, which is clearly and ostensibly a Christian-centric world.  The film’s religious leanings are not offensive, per se, but WARDROBE browbeats viewers with it’s not-too-subtle Christian-teachings: Sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, a savior that dies and resurrects himself to fight off the devil (the Queen), a child that engages in Judas act of betrayal, and so on.  I think that the film’s religious hubris overwhelms the story of the children besieged by their new foreign lands.  

What’s kind of off-putting is how CASPIAN’s major themes of chivalry and valor are at direct odds with its religious fundamentalism.  At the heart we have the tale of the Pevensie children and their team-up with Caspian, who freely decide to fight off the vindictive throne of the empire.  There is a notion here that the good Narnians have control to do whatever they want and need to in order to ensure their freedom.   Yet, CASPIAN is subtly anti-free-will, which seems counterproductive to its Christian theology.  When Aslan does make a triumphant and dramatic return, he is an omnipotent force that seems to single-handedly take matters into his own God-like hands.  So what is the film’s message?  Is is be true to yourself and fight for what’s noble and right or that, in the end, it does not matter because everything is predetermined by a lion-deity?  Because of this, PRINCE CASPIAN seems oddly confused.  There is nothing inherently wrong with a Christian agenda-heavy film, but here the theology is at perplexing odds with the rest of the film’s philosophy. 

Alas, PRINCE CASPIAN is not deficient because of its pious underpinnings.  No, the film has other more problematic faults.  It’s far too long, for starters (at 137 minutes, the film could have easily been 20 minutes shorter) and the story itself never gels with any intrigue or suspense.  Like the final battles in WARDROBE, there is never one instance where you feel that the lives of the Pevensie children are in danger.  What is interesting is how violent the film is, which has an appalling amount of carnage (granted, it’s pretty bloodless) for a PG film.  PRINCE CASPIAN further reveals the hypocrisy of the MPAA when it comes to its pitiful rating of violence, not to mention Disney’s own hypocrisy - and power - over the industry.  They recently announced that they would not be making family films that included on-screen smoking, but multiple impalings, stabbings, slashings, and sword and sorcery chaos is a-okay.  Note to parents:  CASPIAN is a PG-13 film trapped in a PG body, and is surely not for wee-little ones.  

The emotional epicenter of the film is the children, all of whom are adequate in the film, but they are never articulated as interesting personalities.  Peter, at least, is given more edge and has moments of defiance (especially against Caspian), but the other kids just dolefully follow in his shadow.  Ben Barnes as Caspian is also a letdown, as he lacks a palpable screen presence and charisma to match his chiseled features.  Also mishandled is the love story between Susan and the King, which is hinted at here and there, but never capitalized on.  Then there is the villainous King himself and he never emerges as anything close to as memorable as Tilda Swinton’s queen was from WARDROBE. 

There are aspects of the film I appreciated.  Peter Dinklage is a hoot as the sarcastic and acerbic dwarf, as is the voice of Eddie Izzard playing the Reepicheep, a sword carrying rat that has the same cuteness and capricious energy of Puss N’ Boots in the last two SHREK films.  The visual effects eye candy in the film is also exemplary: PRINCE CASPIAN has over 1500 effects shots in it compared to the 800 of WARDROBE…and it had less time to complete them.  The results are a cleaner, crisper, and more life-like vision of the lands, creatures and minions of Narnia, even if they populate perfunctory action sequences that don’t inspire thrills and excitement as they, no doubt, we supposed to. 

To Christain fundamentalists and rabid fans of Lewis’ book series, PRINCE CASPIAN is fairly critic-proof, but for the rest of the agnostic film crowd, the film is a noticeable mixed-bag entertainment.  It has flashy visual effects, some moments of inspiration, and noble intentions, but PRINCE CASPIAN never attains that indescribable aura of being a true, out-of-body escapist feast that the STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS were to the eyes and imaginations of filmgoers.  What we get in CASPIAN is loads of “look at what we can do” visual dynamism wrapped up in a convoluted and muddled story involving characters that don’t resonate with us.  Much like how I felt about the last few HARRY POTTER films, PRINCE CASPIAN pushed me to the outside and never felt inviting.  There is a compelling and involving story to tell about these Pevensie tykes, but PRINCE CASPIAN is not the candidate.  Its motivations are purely in the realm of heightened action and war, something I’m sure that C.S. Lewis – and maybe Aslan – would frown upon.








And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:




3.   PRINCE CASPIAN (2008) jj





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