Friday, May 16, 2008

"Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" -- * *

A little bit better filmmaking paired with less interesting content adds up to making "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" just as bland and eye-glazing an experience as the first film was. The truth is I have never read any of C.S. Lewis's Christian allegory fantasy novels, so I have none of the attachments fans of the book may, and I enter as a lay man. So while I still am in disbelief that this is a movie people are "excited" for, considering how ho-hum it is, it delivers all the action, animals, fantasy and moralizing its target audience is likely anticipating. The technical elements present are still fairly solid, with pretty vistas/scenery, but they're unfortunately the most interesting thing on display. It's always a bad sign when a film bores me to the point of imagining characters from other movies wandering in; here, I kept thinking of the possibilities if Daniel Plainview were to show up and bludgeon a whimpering Price Caspian with a bowling pin.

To determine to what extent you should take my thoughts on "Prince Caspian" with a grain of salt, I think it's only fair to reveal how I felt about the first "Narnia" film. I don't hate it, not by any means; I think it has moments (most involving Tilda Swinton's White Witch), and at times is great to look at. But for the most part, I found it incredibly dull, leaden and heavy-handed. In a movie that purports to be about imagination and the magic of fantasy, yada yada yada, it never imparts those feelings, and always felt very wooden, lifeless and mechanized. I've given it second and third looks, to try to get all the fuss, but I just can't warm to it. I know that all the plot elements stemmed from the mind of C.S. Lewis, but so much of it smacked of a protracted silliness to me that, for instance, the "Lord of the Rings" films didn't have. Santa Claus delivering weapons? The Christ-like lion king who dwells in a big red and yellow tent? Look, I understand the folks who grew up on Lewis's books and were pleased with a film that adapted their childhood love faithfully/admirably. But the rest, those who went in cold and proclaimed the movie magical or enthralling, you just don't make sense to me.

Opening with screams of an excruciating childbirth, the first seven minutes or so of the movie center around an assassination attempt on the titular Prince (Ben Barnes). Caspian promptly flees into the forest on his horse and blows his magic horn, which summons back our kid protagonists, Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skander Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (the statutory-riffic William Moseley) from their comfortable 1950s England. One year after their experiences in the last movie, the former Kings and Queens of Narnia discover that their single year has been 1,300 years in Narnia, and there's noticeably less adorable talking creatures running around. The four kids must help Caspian combat his wicked uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), and restore pride and glory to Narnia, with the help of a talking, sword-toting mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and a red-bearded dwarf Trimpkin (Peter Dinklage, behind a lot of prosthetics). All the while, Lucy keeps seeing visions of beloved Jesus-lion, Aslan, but he ain't actually there-- or is he??

The prince is told by a wizard early on that "everything you know is about to change," and accordingly, those who haven't read the books may be taken aback that this feels like an entirely different type of movie than "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe;" the proceedings feel significantly darker, there's much more emphasis on battles and swords clanging than fantastical elements, and the first talking animal doesn't appear till the 26-minute mark (it's a badger, if you were curious). I liked the idea that Narnia has become (as Trumpkin says) "a more savage place than you may remember," but disappointingly, it doesn't make this installment any more interesting or involving than the last. Where the first film felt like a flavorless retread of other fantasy films we'd seen before, this one feels like a flavorless retread of sword and sandal movies we've seen before ("Gladiator" is invoked numerous times). With a plot filled with kings and sorcerers, and lots of horses galloping to intense music, my boredom had already settled in by the opening credits; it certainly doesn't help that it all runs a looooong 2 hours and 25 minutes. I know it's a repeated, oft-heard complaint, but these movies do feel like "Lord of the Rings" light (this one even has walking trees), and don't really carve out their identity or make the familiarity interesting.

The Christian stuff is ever-present again this time around; there's still obvious symbolism, overtones of the importance of faith and sacrifice, etc., and Jesus the lion once again utilizes his healing powers *SPOILER AHEAD* granting Reepicheep a new tail near the end. *SPOILER OVER* And while it may please that values-centric portion of the audience with its perpetual bloodlessness (even after penetrating a torso, no blood gets on Peter's sword), in no world should this be a PG movie. It's awfully scary at times and the violence on display-- including a decapitation-- is virtually non-stop. If anything, this serves as an example of the unfair leniency afforded big studio pictures by the MPAA. Perhaps to balance the violence out, though, we're given a villain, King Miraz, who is never a terribly imposing presence or a viable threat, and just comes off as kind of generic and weak. A villain should make an impression other than over-enunciating syllables ("I inn-tend to striiike bahhk!"), not be the least memorable element of a fantasy epic.

In comparison to the first movie, Adamson's direction is noticeably more refined (if still a bit cut-and-dry); things look crisper and the story flows a little more fluidly than the last time around. But some problems remain, some of which aren't necessarily Adamson's fault. Almost every "big" sequence or set-piece feels oddly self-contained and they all seem as if they could've been put in the movie in any order and not made much of a difference. Also, there needs to be some sort of studio-enforced mandate about slow motion shots in fantasy films; the utilization of slo-mo here is out of control, and only enhances the eye-rolling nature of moments that were cheesy to begin with (a charging-towards-the-camera screaming of "For Narnia!" will have some in giggle fits). Such sequences are not helped by Harry Gregson-Williams' score, which 75% of the time goes for bombast and over-emphasis than subtlety.

Doing their best to fill the void left by Swinton, and James McAvoy's Mr. Tumnus, and nearly succeeding, are Dinklage and Izzard, who give the movie some much-needed wit and "zing." I worried about Reepicheep, with his familiarity, and easy "adorable"-ness; his handling seems to intentionally invoke "Shrek 2's" Puss in Boots, even including a red feather behind his ear. However, Izzard-- who directors usually don't know what to do with when they get him in their movies-- makes the character one of the movie's bright spots, and actually made me laugh once or twice. Swinton's White Witch shows up about two-thirds of the way though, but I almost wish that she hadn't. Her 2.5 minute appearance (during which Swinton has maybe four lines of dialogue) only serves to remind you of the genuinely compelling menace this installment lacks, and she's a much-missed presence throughout the rest of the film.

Hottie Barnes (looking like a younger, more ravishing Timothy Olyphant) plays Caspian with a sincere conviction, even while hindered by a goofy accent seemingly inspired by "The Princess Bride's" Inigo Montoya. His dashing good looks paired with a steely-eyed nobility will have most audience members swooning and trolling their local Blockbuster for a copy of "Stardust." As for the kids themselves, they're just as blank as they were the last time around. They're rarely noticeably bad (though the pretty, effete Moseley strains to appear tough), but again, their inability to make these characters likeable or compelling keeps us from getting terribly involved.

For all its unremarkable elements, "Prince Caspian" is ultimately too bland to hate. I can't see anyone who disliked the first film experiencing a turnaround here, and for those who enjoyed the first film but haven't read the books, I could see them going either way. This one is on a grander scale, with a more "epic" feel and more stuff going on, but it abandons much of the "magic" for more conventional swords-clanging-together content. As someone who did not enjoy "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I felt this one was about on par, a little bit worse in spots, a little bit better in others. It's an adequate follow-up, and considering the first film made $745 million worldwide, I'm sure that'll sit just fine with most "Narnia" fans.


Anonymous patrick said...

the makers of Prince Caspian kept to the original story surprisingly well... i heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case

9:45 AM  

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