Friday, January 24, 2020

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Review

As I wrote in my review of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," most people know that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were college chums, and that both men were fascinated by mythology and the Bible. As members of the same writers' club at Oxford they also critiqued each other's work, and Lewis encouraged his friend to publish "The Hobbit" (1937), which he had written for his children. Thirteen years later Lewis himself would write a kinder and gentler fantasy for children, but as far as young ones were concerned it was worth the wait. Lewis's tales were instantly more popular with children because they involved real children who stepped through a portal into another dimension, an alternate world that had talking animals, centaurs, minotaurs, and the kinds of good versus evil struggles that engulfed Tolkien's Middle Kingdom.

After he finished his film adaptation of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," director Andrew Adamson says he wanted nothing to do with another movie that had children in it (and all those regulations!), animals, and CGI action. But, he says on one of the bonus features, he couldn't bear the thought of "shipping these children off to another director."

The four children who star--William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley--felt as attached to Adamson, as well. He apparently created a set that led to all sorts of friendships and camaraderie, which he thinks is important when you're making a film. It certainly was with this one, which was shot in a number of different international locations (including New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia) under difficult circumstances. There's plenty of footage of the actors in full get-up sitting around, waiting for the sun to come out, walking in the rain, or pulling ticks off of each other--a nightly ritual.

In the first installment, the adventure began when London was bombed during WWII and (shades of "Lemony Snicket") the children were sent to live with a professor at his country house, as real children did with Professor Lewis. There, in a spare room, they enter a mysterious wardrobe and pass through its contents of coats and cloaks into the snowy world of Narnia, which has been in constant winter since the evil White Witch (played with understated relish by Tilda Swinton) had been in power. There, they meet a lion named Aslan (Liam Neeson) who, like Christ, is betrayed and willingly submits himself to ridicule and death, only to rise again. The children are asked to believe in him, and the film ended with Peter (Moseley), Susan (Popplewell), Edmund (Keynes), and Lucy (Henley) leading the Narnians against the forces of evil and being elevated as kings and queens, essentially growing up and growing older in Narnia until one day they felt they had to return.

This time around, the danger has passed and the Underground is full of children who are catching trains to return to their families. But shades of "Harry Potter," just as the children are wondering aloud when Aslan will summon them back, a portal opens in the Underground and they pass into the world of Narnia again, which is unrecognizable to them because of all the changes. Then again, it's been roughly 1300 years, Narnian time, since the children ruled, and legend has it that by blowing a horn the "old kings and queens of Narnia" could be summoned to help them reclaim their land. You see, the Narnians have been driven so far underground that many of the "children of Adam" who now prevail over the land had thought them extinct. We're introduced to Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), a 20-something lad whom we learn is the son of the real king who is missing and presumed dead. In power is his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who has usurped the throne. And on the day that his queen gives birth to a son, he sends soldiers to fill Caspian's bed full of crossbow arrows. But Dr. Cornelius (Vincent Grass) has aided the Prince's escape, and has given him the horn to blow in case of emergency.

Naturally, the four Pevensie children are a little younger than the Prince expected, because when they returned to London they realized that only a short while had passed in Earth time, and they seem younger still as their confusion makes them seem a bit slow-witted. So what happened to Narnia and the Narnians? Prince Caspian discovers several Narnians (or vice versa), and soon he's recruiting them for an army so that he can reclaim his kingdom. And the four kings and queens of old do the same, this time with help from a dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage). Meanwhile, the youngest Pevensie keeps thinking she's seeing Aslan, and wants the rest to follow.

The plotting isn't exactly plodding, but there just aren't as many elements to create and sustain tension this second installment, and the children being older have lost a little of their freshness and charm. Or maybe it's just that the script didn't allow for the same level of sibling rivalry and meaningful character interaction as the first. The emphasis is instead on political intrigue and a succession of battles, including a leader-against-leader fight that will remind moviegoers of "Troy." Trumpkin, for example, doesn't have the same level of emotional engagement with the children as the beloved satyr, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), whom they first met when they entered this strange world. And as a villain, the bearded Miraz looks and snarls just like any other scruffy medieval-looking bad guy--far removed from the icy personality of the White Witch. The closest we get to personality comes from a swashbuckling mouse who provides the same measure of comic relief as Puss in Boots from "Shrek 2."