'Prince Caspian': Fantasy Rules With a Iron Hand in Narnia
Friday, May 16, 2008
Time travel! Talking mice! Terribly proper manners!
Those plucky Pevensie children, the young and improbable heroes of 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," make an impressive if somewhat repetitive return in the second installment, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." A little bit older, living in London, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are wistfully pining for the days when they ruled the parallel universe known as Narnia when they are suddenly whisked back, this time by way of an accommodating tube station.
Once returned to their former fanciful realm, they discover it has been taken over -- not by their erstwhile nemesis, the White Witch, but by the wicked King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who has driven the Narnians of old underground and set out to murder Narnia's rightful ruler, the young and handsome Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). Once again, the four young crusaders do battle with the forces of evil, and once again they prove that a ragtag team of dwarfs, centaurs, satyrs and sundry talking animals can overcome swords and catapults through the sheer force of goodness.
As he did in the 2005 film, director Andrew Adamson -- best known for the "Shrek" movies -- imbues C.S. Lewis's beloved Narnia series with equal parts whimsy, action and moral seriousness. True to form, "Prince Caspian" is a muscular, handsome production, this time made more attractive by Adamson's attention to the stunning natural beauty of New Zealand: its turquoise rivers, verdant forests and breathtaking mountain ranges.
What's more, the Pevensies have changed in interesting ways: Peter (William Moseley), the levelheaded eldest brother, is now a hothead, prone to fighting. The problematic Edmund (Skandar Keynes) has mellowed, and now rests a calming hand on big brother's shoulder. Little Lucy (Georgie Henley), the younger girl, is still closest to the spiritual realm (she's the only one who sees the great lion Aslan when he makes his godlike presence felt). The most fascinating transformation is that of Susan (Anna Popplewell), who as a teenager seems to have ripened and sharpened simultaneously. When she dons her quiver of red arrows to do battle with Miraz's armored forces, she's the very picture of young womanhood, both soft and strong.
In a way, Susan embodies the strengths and failings of the "Narnia" series, which, if all goes according to plan, will eventually comprise seven movies. When she aims and fires, she perfectly conveys the vicarious pleasures of vanquishing the enemy, by way of a sure eye, steady hand and superior moral force. But her most pivotal and stirring scene, wherein she does single-handed battle with an oncoming cavalry in a wooded glen, ends with a retrograde whimper, reminding viewers that even as expansive and humanist an intellect as Lewis's was still a prisoner of his times where sexism was concerned.
Admittedly, the subtleties of gender symbolism probably won't divert viewers who are attracted to the "Narnia" movies for their sweeping, swashbuckling action. Indeed, by the end of "Prince Caspian's" nearly 2 1/2 -hour running time, viewers are likely to be feeling quite pummeled from all the duels, battles, showdowns and other ritualized aggression. (The Christian subtext that ran through "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" here has given way to a greater fascination with medieval chivalric codes.) It's not much fun to root for Caspian, who compared with the Pevensies is kind of a Euro-trash ninny, but there's no denying he has the most interesting fighting force: a grumpy dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), a cheeky talking badger, some well-toned centaurs and a rapier-wielding mouse (voiced by Eddie Izzard) who seems to have pilfered the plume from Puss in Boots's hat in "Shrek 2."
With its ponderous, pounding musical score and more-epic-than-thou battle sequences, "Prince Caspian" finally teeters on the very edge of overkill, an effect not helped by Lewis's sanguinary sense of ethical certitude (how fine the line between moral courage and moral arrogance). The final battle royal, reminiscent of the showdown featuring the fabulously maned Tilda Swinton in the first film, does its best to up the ante but succeeds only in introducing the meanest bunch of trees since "The Wizard of Oz" and confounding all logistic and spatial sense.
Still, "Prince Caspian" fulfills its primary task, which is to move the "Narnia" franchise along with the verve and visual style to which its fans have become accustomed. And its most important elements are still sturdily intact: a richly imagined fictional world, four terrific tween protagonists and, as voiced by Liam Neeson, a magnificent mythical lion who still qualifies as cinema's greatest characterization of the Cat Upstairs.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (137 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for epic battle action and violence.