It’s kind of stunning that writer-director Andrew Adamson took a trim little 216-page book and turned it into an ungainly action fantasy that careens between bludgeoning battle scenes and moments of forced and unrealistic drama that leave no room for characterization, growth, or any kind of emotional connection to the people onscreen aside from the animal instinct to see heroes triumph in combat. Based on C.S. Lewis’ book, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is a sequel to 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, also helmed by Adamson, and as such the new film is a pretty consistent continuation of what’s apparently Adamson’s style: Using the book as a rough guide, he sketches out a story more visually compelling but less soulfully engaging than what’s been written. Prince Caspian isn’t a completely terrible film, but it’s also not a very good one, and the blame for this has to fall with Adamson and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Unable to choose which master to serve — the story’s literary origins or its big-screen future — they’ve tried to cram in too much, overloading the film with plot points but not actually connecting them with any kind of narrative through-line. Like the fictional realm of Narnia itself, the film seems to exist outside of time; it’s a servant to none but itself, basking in its own glory in hopes that viewers will be naïve enough to follow.
The story opens in Narnia more than a millennium after the events of the first film, and in that time the magical world has seen its fairy tale denizens overrun by the invading armies of the neighboring country of Telmar. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is the rightful heir to the throne, but he’s usurped by his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), whose wife bears him a son and who thus promptly orders the execution of his disdained nephew. Caspian is saved from death by his boyhood professor, who visits Caspian’s room in the castle and helps him escape moments before Miraz’s guards are set to show up. It’s no accident that they escape through a secret passage hidden behind an old oak wardrobe; Adamson is clearly hoping to regain some of the fantastical air of the first film, and he’s not above subliminal signs like this one. Upon fleeing to the woods, Caspian uses an ancient magical horn to call for help, expecting aide from on high but instead summoning the four Pevensie children from a London train station and whisking them magically away to Narnia. Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) were once kings and queens in Narnia, but though they’ve only been gone a year by their/our calendar, it’s been closer to 1,300 for Narnia. (How this number is arrived at is anyone’s guess, but Susan drops the figure at one point, and it seems to fit.) The children meet up with a dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), an ally of Caspian who’s agreed to help the prince gather an army to reclaim his throne, and together they journey to meet up with Caspian in hopes of overthrowing Miraz.
Yet despite the story’s inherent yearning for simplicity, the film begins to groan under the weight of the artificial drama and a slightly inflated sense of self-worth. Adamson seems to go out of his way to make things deliberately hard to follow and hard to care about. Caspian raises an army of Narnians — ranging from centaurs to dwarves and all manner of talking beasts — with only a smattering of dissent from a few voices, but it’s with these magical characters that Adamson begins to show his laziness. Among Caspian’s warriors are a dozen or so talking mice, each standing about a foot tall and wielding tiny swords, led by their chief, Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard). But for as vital a role as Reepicheep plays throughout the film, he’s never named. Not once. Why would Adamson refrain from having someone utter the name of a major character? Did he think viewers would forget, or that they wouldn’t care to know? Either way, it’s an insult to the viewer’s intelligence to assume that all they will see is a cartoon character whose antics don’t earn him a name.
It’s only in the two major action sequences that Adamson establishes the film as his own, going for broke on CGI as he hurls everything at the camera in hopes of beating the viewer into a sense of submission instead of crafting a story to earn their awe. The stakes are higher in Prince Caspian, as is the body count, but at the same time it’s hard to get worked up enough to feel involved. It’s not just because the five main characters all seem fated to survive without too many scratches — this is still a family fantasy based on a children’s book — but because Adamson never spends more than a few moments on characterization, giving only a basic outline of human interaction in the hopes that everything looks close enough to genuine emotion to be mistaken for the real thing. Once or twice, Susan and Caspian make eyes at each other in a way that hints they might, you know, like each other in that special boy-girl way, but there’s zero chemistry between the characters and no story traction to support their teenage romance. But the film isn’t concerned with creating a relationship, just hinting at the archetypal idea of one, which is ultimately an injustice to the viewer.
The four children tasked with carrying the film do as well as they can, but they’ve largely been cast for how they look in the roles (surprisingly good) and not how they measure up as actors (predictably mediocre). Barnes is decent enough as Caspian, though the Telmarines all speak in a kind of muddled Spanish/Italian/
all-purpose-foreigner accent, as if to separate them from the purity of their British juniors. Of all the children, Henley’s Lucy comes across as the most authentic: Her character functions on love for her siblings and a pure belief in the existence and goodness of the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), and Henley steps into the role of apostle with more grace than the others do into their places as warriors. The belief in Aslan — Lewis’ allegorical representation of Christ — plays a pivotal role in the book, but Adamson has a tough time balancing the story’s bloodier elements with its moments of professed belief. Perhaps the best way to explain Adamson’s lack of commitment is when Peter during a battle wonders aloud, “What do you think happens back home if you die here?” But Narnia isn’t the Matrix, and this isn’t happening in their heads; they’ve actually gone somewhere special. Religion aside, until Adamson acts as if Narnia were a real place for these characters and not some figment of a daydream, the events that play out there will never feel half as wonderful as he wants them to be.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Dull Magic From the Dawn of Time
Film | May 16, 2008 | Comments ()