There’s a lot to like with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Hereafter Caspian). Unfortunately, there’s also a lot to dislike. With a mix of teen angst, childlike yearning, and rebel-gone-right personalities among the royal Pevensie brothers and sisters, our heroes (and presumably audiences) have returned once again to the world run by the most verbose lion in cinema (and literary) history. Only now, it’s more than two hundred years later than the events in the first film.
For fans of the original Narnia film, Caspian presents complete culture shock. Gone are the vast green fields and talking beavers that told of great lions. Instead, we’re met with a group of humans that behave… well… like humans. For a brief period of time, I wondered whether or not I was in the right multiplex auditorium. This was the first of many jarring distractions in what could have been a glorious cinematic experience.
Perhaps this is a good time for a few disclosures. I’m probably one of the few English-speaking men in the western pantheon who has not read any of the Narnia books. My own history with Narnia was (until the previous film) the animated film that apparently stuck to the book almost to the letter.
This fact probably hindered my ability to enjoy this movie, and revealed one of its most glaring faults: it can’t stand on its own. Reading the book is almost as required as seeing the predecessor. Otherwise, the audience has to spend half the film catching up. One of the characteristics of a great film is that it should be written and presented without the need “study up” on its source material. Reading the book should enhance a film’s greatness, not be a prerequisite.
Another disclaimer: because I’m a bit hard of hearing, I found it difficult to understand the dialogue. BBC America has a promo that says, “even Brits have a hard time understanding Brits. Use your closed captioning.” How I wish I had closed captioning for this film! But hey, I managed to figure out what was going on—eventually.
Caspian is a story that focuses on the title character, played by newcomer Ben Barnes (last seen in Stardust), whose likeness will surely begin adorning the walls of new teenybopper fans on both sides of the pond. Young Caspian is, of course, a prince that is harshly awoken by his mentor Cornelius (Vincent Grass) with only moments to spare before his traitorous uncle’s (Sergio Castelitto) soldiers arrive to kill him.
Clearly, this is not the start of a good day. The film then sends the dashing young prince into the depths of the forest, only to be discovered by dwarves and a badger with a real attitude. Talking animals are always the delight of children, and highlight one of the great difficulties that Caspian presents: just what kind of film is this?
Is it meant to be a medieval war film? Or is it a children’s movie? Maybe it’s supposed to be fantasy. No, wait. It’s meant to be a morality play. Is it possible for all of them to be wrapped up into one? Well, it’s possible. That doesn’t always mean it works when they’re all jumbled together.
The audience for Caspian is built-in. With its Christian allegory roots by C.S. Lewis, church groups and evangelical families everywhere will flock to theatre doors to see their favorite fantasy put to the big screen. Strangely, though, director Andrew Adamson managed to weave the film into a piece of secular entertainment that barely hints of its allegorical origins.
The climactic battle scene is the moment where the film finds its groove. However, after nearly two hours that precedes it, the eyes of most of the audience would have glazed over, rudely startled back into the film’s universe by the arrival of two great forces about to do what great forces do: beat the daylights out of each other.
One doesn’t have to live by any major philosophy to know that every film has a message; and every film has a core intent and purpose. The problem that Caspian has at its core is that it’s not sure of its own purpose, much like the Pevensie children themselves.
One of the major bright points of the film is young Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and her singular, epic quest: The search for Aslan (voiced once again by Liam Neeson). No matter how frustrated the others were with her desire to see the great ruler of Narnia. Another high point is Reepicheep, a warrior mouse (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and his big attitude. The CGI is among the best seen in recent years, and only adds to the quality of the many non-human characters.
Most moviegoers will find that they liked Caspian, even though there’s something in the back of their mind that questions why. This is the second of four planned Narnia films, and it’s already surpassed the tone and overall quality of the first film. With a hint of fun, a touch of sporadic greatness, and an overall darkness that adds a sense of dread, it is one wasted opportunity after another.
To be sure, Caspian has a clear vision of greatness. It’s too bad that it never quite achieves it. It could have been the best film of the year. Instead, it will fade away into obscurity as yet another mediocre Saturday matinee that never reached its full potential.