Friday, May 16, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian -- Sharp-edged sequel

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) • View trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and far too gently, due to a very grim tone and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.16.08
Buy DVD: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian • Buy Blu-Ray: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [Blu-ray]

Given Radio Disney's involvement with this film's Tuesday evening preview in Sacramento, and the impressive Mouse House publicity machine at work as these words are typed, one can't help assuming that The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is designed as a family-friendly follow-up to its lavishly produced and enthusiastically received 2005 predecessor.
The Pevensie children — from left, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William
Moseley), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) — follow their
new friend, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), into an underground crypt, where
they're saddened to find the final resting place of Aslan, the wise and kindly
lion who helped so much during their previous adventures in Narnia.

The misleading PG rating also supports that belief.

But while this adventure saga delivers a smashing good time (literally!), parents need to exercise caution: Director/co-scripter Andrew Adamson's second run at C.S. Lewis is very grim stuff, with a mercilessly bleak atmosphere and a body count comparable to that found in Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth. The battle scenes are impressively staged — one intimate, two monumental — but the presentation is comparable to the PG-13 hacking and slashing of all three Lord of the Rings entries.

Bad things happen to good characters in this sequel, and impressionable youngsters are apt to get rather upset when some of their favorite supporting characters don't make it to the final act.

Yes, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had its share of dire doings, but most concerned the supernatural machinations of Tilda Swinton's White Witch. Although she makes a brief return appearance here, the (ahem) lion's share of battlefield mayhem is of the man-made, sword-wielding variety.

Watching scores (hundreds?) of foot-soldiers on both sides get sliced and diced is a bit more unsettling than seeing folks turned into statues.

I also wonder whether contemporary filmmakers have any sense of the attention span of today's children. Prince Caspian runs an impressive 138 minutes — rather a lot of movie for such a short book! — and while Adamson maintains a lively pace that moves the story right along, that's still asking a lot of the restless youngsters at whom this picture seems aimed.

The slightly older Harry Potter crowd, on the other hand, should have a great time.

After an all-too brief prologue in Blitz-ravaged London, our four young protagonists — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (the still irresistible Georgie Henley) — are summoned back to Narnia by the blast of a magical horn. But they arrive to find that centuries have passed during their single year in London: Everything they remember of Narnia, and all the friendly characters with whom they bonded, are nothing but distant memories.

Indeed, the very magic has been leached from the land: Trees no longer sing or gambol, and most forest animals have reverted to their more primal Earthlike counterparts.

Aslan, the wonderfully wise lion so beloved by young Lucy, hasn't been seen for a millennium.

Blame a succession of Telmarine (human) kings, who've systematically slaughtered the many mystical Narnian races. As this story opens, the vile Lord Miraz (Sergio Castellitto, appropriately hissable) has just seen the birth of his first son, which gives Miraz the excuse he's always wanted to kill his nephew, Caspian (Ben Barnes), actual heir to the throne.

Caspian only just escapes the castle with his life, dodging Miraz's soldiers with unexpected help from some dwarfs, a wise badger named Trufflehunter (voiced by Ken Stott) and a sword-wielding, swashbuckling mouse named Reepicheep (Eddie Izzard).

After donning their Narnian garb and weapons, and wandering about for a bit in the company of Trumpkin the Red Dwarf (Peter Dinklage, absolutely wonderful), the four Pevensie children eventually unite with Caspian and the remnants of the Narnians. With Miraz having decided to exterminate the forest-dwelling mystical folks once and for all, the clock is running.

And although Peter and Caspian argue about strategies, both recognize that a last stand is in the offing.

Oddly, despite hundreds of years of mistreatment at the hands of humans, the various centaurs, minotaurs and other magical creatures remain willing to accept leadership from "a son of Adam," since prophecy apparently demands as much. Even allowing for the strong, classically Christian subtext of Lewis' original books, that seems a stretch in this film, given the circumstances.

It feels ... contrived.

That aside, Adamson and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a nice job with the numerous characters and relationships that populate this huge cast. Peter has matured into an effective leader, and his arguments with Caspian are reasonable without becoming unduly harsh. Edmund has matured well after his disastrous encounter with the White Witch in the first film, and the degree to which he supports his brother is nice to see.

Actually, it's refreshing to note that all five young people get along with each other, without any of the fabricated "conflict" that pervades far too many movies.

Susan continues to be cool-headed and eagle-eyed with her bow and magical arrows, while Lucy develops droll relationships with both Trumpkin and Reepicheep. The latter also delivers plenty of comic relief, particularly when he finds the castle cat.

But I can't quite get a handle of Miraz's right-hand man, Gen. Glozelle (Pierfrancesco Favino). The script strongly hints at this character's ambivalence regarding the increasingly obsessed Miraz, but every time Glozelle has an opportunity to act with greater virtue, he fails to do so. And his ultimate fate is, frankly, utterly bewildering (and sloppily scripted).

Although our heroes' initial efforts to strike a blow against Miraz are well staged — an assault on the evil lord's castle is genuinely exciting and quite suspenseful — the final climactic battle suffers from a severe case of deus ex machina "last-minute salvation." We can't help wondering why Aslan doesn't reappear sooner; more to the point, if the lion lord and his fellow Narnians have the ability to summon water gods and revive the tree spirits, then why didn't they do that 1,300 years ago, when the Telmarines started behaving badly?

As with some earlier plot elements, the story's outcome feels blatantly contrived.

The visual effects are sensational, and the various creatures are quite convincing. (SFX supervisors Dean Wright and Wendy Rogers, take a bow.) Harry Gregson-Williams' score adds a suitably triumphant — or melancholy — flourish to each scene as needed, and Karl Walter Lindenlaub's live-action camerawork is integrated seamlessly with all the CGI elements.

We truly live in a magical time, when it comes to visualizing such imaginative tales.

Although Disney and Walden Media clearly fast-tracked Prince Caspian because it's the only follow-up to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that uses all four Pevensie children, this new film concludes with a clear reference to Lucy and Edmund's upcoming return to Narnia once again — without their older siblings — as recounted in the third of Lewis' books in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Given the first film's success, and the probability that this one will score the same box-office triumph, perhaps we can hope to see all seven books eventually brought to the screen.

But please, folks: Let's be a little more honest with the rating, and the marketing, the next time around.

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