Review: The Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian

May 18, 2008

I haven’t been to a movie theater in over six months. I can’t remember what the last movie was that I saw there…it may well have been The Transformers last summer. So for 2008, the first summer movie that my wife and I decided to take in was Prince Caspian, second in the line of pictures from Disney in the fabled C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. So I’ll cut to the chase: what did I think?

In a word: meh.

I greatly enjoyed the Narnia stories when I was younger. I have fond memories of my 4th and 5th grade teachers reading each of the books aloud, a chapter at a time. Like many children the religious allegory of the stories was largely lost on me, even through the animated The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was shown at our church. It’s hard to miss the symbolism in that one, but Prince Caspian was – on paper – a bit more subtle.

In its printed form, Prince Caspian is a story about finding faith. The Narnians find faith in a new King, a son of Adam but of the same people that has essentially relegated them to history. The new King finds faith in the Narnians, those that he had only heard stories of from his youth, both from his nurse and his teacher, Doctor Cornelius – himself a half-dwarf. The Pevensie children find their faith in Aslan, who has apparently forsaken the old Narnians to the cruel machinations of the Telmarine usurpers of the Narnian throne.

In the filmed version, Prince Caspian takes a somewhat different tack. The issues of faith that are so interwoven throughout the story are largely gone, replaced with different issues…issues of pride, self-importance, distrust and misguided desperation. This diffusion of the original story leaves the movie missing much of its soul, but more on that in a moment.

The movie is ostensibly about the efforts of Prince Caspian to wrest his rightful place as King of Narnia from his uncle, Miraz. When Miraz has a son (at the beginning of the movie), Caspian is sent into hiding by “Professor” Cornelius, who recognizes that now Miraz has an heir there is nothing to really stop him from killing Caspian (as he did his father) and claiming the throne for his own bloodline. Caspian manages to call on the High Kings and Queens of old, not expecting them to be young children, and then allows Peter to concoct a plan to besiege his Uncle’s castle with predictably disastrous results.

So where does this movie go from the “woo-hoo” of the cherished story of my past to the “meh” of this afternoon? Here is where I felt the movie fell flat, but there are some good moments as well.

Pro: The siege scene. This entire section of the movie is completely new and it is actually pretty well done, even though its done at night so much of the action is obscured in darkness. The desperation of the Narnian forces is really brought home, and the eventual outcome of the battle really managed to convey the seriousness of the situation

Pro: Reepicheep. Very well done – they make no more a mockery of the noble mouse than Lewis did himself in the books, and he provides both a comic foil (largely on the basis of physical comedy) and a genuine heart of courage.

Con(s): Pretty much all of the human nobility, both the Pevensies and Caspian. The acting wasn’t bad per se, it just wasn’t very good. This is difficult to explain, but I felt the same way about the first movie. The ability to look cute or annoyed or flirtatious is not really the breadth and soul of acting, and the unfortunate choices made in reconstructing the themes of the story really reduce Lucy’s greater role in the rediscovery of their faith. Caspian’s accent is almost painful to listen to sometimes – he sounds like someone trying to do a poor Antonio Banderas impression – and he really gives no real indication as to why he deserves to be King, aside from his place in the line of succession. Why did the Narnians all gather behind him and fight to the death? Apparently because he asked.

Con(s): The Ents, er, trees. In the book, the trees themselves aren’t really reawakened, their spirits are. The same is true of the other natural spirits, such as the spirits of the rivers. This is vaguely alluded to in the movie but in the end they end up looking pretty much like the Ents rather than the wood spirits that they’re supposed to be. I’m not certain if this is just a failure of imagination or just a stylistic choice on the part of the designers, but the final result is a not so vague feeling that you’ve seen this before.

Pro: The expanded scene in Aslan’s How where the Hag and Werewolf resurrect the White Witch is truly some pretty scary stuff. In the book the resurrection option is offered and spoken of but nothing really comes of it, but the movie goes forward with actually bringing the image of the Witch to Caspian – and Peter – making the entire thing much more dramatic. The ice effects were nicely done, and it was a truly superb (if underplayed) touch to have Edmund be the one that brought resolution to the entire affair.

Con: Aslan’s involvement. This is the part of the movie that really chafes me. The movie treats Aslan as if he were just waiting around in the forest for someone to come and fetch him, and when they finally do all they have to do is remind him that they need him so he can save the day. This is lazy – Aslan becomes little more than a Deus ex Machina (ha!). The original story is much more complex – Aslan is present in much of the book, but not necessarily visible to everyone. It is only as the characters gain (or regain) their faith that they can perceive him, which goes back to the issues of faith that I spoke of earlier. This is the allegory of Prince Caspian (in my eyes), and this is why the movie seems to have little heart. In the end the efforts of the children do nothing to solve the conflict – it’s the intervention of Aslan after little more than a nicely worded invitation on Lucy’s part that resolves everything. In fact, the physical battle(s) of the story should be sidelines to the questions of faith that each one of them should be facing, but instead the movie chooses spectacle over substance and (largely) flash over heart. Not always, but in the end analysis that’s where I came down.

Pro: Trumpkin the dwarf is played with sincerity by Peter Dinklage, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Warwick Davis played against type and did well as Nikabrik. These two actors provide strong performances that give rise to the very complex natures of the Dwarves in the Narnia stories – anyone who has read The Last Battle probably knows to what I refer.

So I guess if I were forced to give a letter grade to the movie, I’d probably give it a B- or perhaps a C+. It depends on how much I ponder the misuse of Aslan in the story – or more specifically, the misuse of the children and their relationship with Aslan. If I think too much about that the score starts to drop, but given the movie on its own merits as a fantasy adventure I’d probably stick with the B- rating. So there you have it, my thoughts on Prince Caspian. I’ll be curious to see if it is successful enough to warrant The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – as a fan of Reepicheep, I certainly hope to see the little warrior again.