Awaiting the coming of a lion in a film that’s gone to the dogma.
Director Andrew Adamson’s 2005 film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was by no means a great film, but it was nevertheless a thoroughly likable picture thanks to its great ensemble cast. The menace of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) was nicely balanced by the stunningly lifelike CGI lion Aslan (voiced with regal authority by Liam Neeson). Though the story’s religious subtext was clearly present, it was at least tastefully restrained. Between the harrowing scenes of the Nazi Blitzkrieg and the charming friendship between ten year old Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and the “faun” Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), the film possessed an emotional anchor that generated empathy despite its fantastic setting. So that film’s relative success makes Adamson’s dreary follow-up all the more baffling and disappointing.
Prince Caspian sees the return of the four Pevensie children to the realm of Narnia thirteen hundred years later (but only one year Earth-time.) The warlike Telmarines have invaded Narnia and all but annihilated its population of centaurs, fauns, minotaurs and other talking creatures. Young Caspian (Ben Barnes), a naive but otherwise decent fellow, is the rightful heir to the Telmarine throne until his villainous uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) attempts to murder him and claim the crown for his own. Driven into hiding, Caspian inadvertently summons the Pevensie kids from World War II-era England, and they join forces to defend the surviving Narnians while awaiting the return of the magical (and messianic) lion Aslan.
The film depends in large amount upon the child actors’ performances, but the kids play their parts with so little distinction that they become virtually interchangeable. Admittedly, this is partly the fault of the action-heavy script, but if the directors of the Harry Potter films consistently get well-rounded performances out of their young actors, why can’t Adamson? Only William Moseley’s Peter, the eldest of the Pevensie siblings, receives three whole dimensions to his character, two of which are “shallow” and “vain.” As for the 26-year old Barnes, he woodenly plays the title character as a younger, blander Brandon Routh with a laughably inconsistent accent: picture The Office‘s Michael Scott imitating The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya.
Neeson and Swinton reprise their previous roles in greatly diminished doses, but the first film’s McAvoy, Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone don’t return for this installment, and that leaves Peter Dinklage as a dwarf named Trumpkins, who unfortunately is relegated to a tertiary supporting role while buried under whole cakes of makeup. The scene-stealing mouse cavalier Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) provides some bright moments of levity, but these are painfully few and far between.
As for the inordinately long chases and epic battle sequences, they all feel reminiscent – if not derivative – of other movies, particularly The Lord of the Rings trilogy and George Lucas’s blatant Rings pastiche Willow. Lewis of course collaborated on the Narnia books with his close friend J.R.R. Tolkein, so some degree of mimicry is understandable. But if you’re going to watch a film with walking trees and rivers come to life, you might as well rent the one with good acting and developed characters. Prince Caspian is also far more mean-spirited than its influences – one particularly distasteful and manipulative sequence features many of the whimsical Narnians slaughtered in captivity.
Adamson ramps the book’s deliberate allegory into overdrive, delivering several moments of outright patronizing morals that promote Christian theology. This would be fine if the filmmakers genuinely engaged the underlying philosophical questions instead of curtly dismissing such thorny details in favor of dogma. (Why exactly did Aslan abandon Narnia to thirteen hundred years of genocide?) An example: at one point Peter wishes for some sign of Aslan’s presence, but is silenced when his little sister Lucy admonishes, “Maybe it’s we who need to prove ourselves to him.” You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to appreciate the Indiana Jones films and you don’t have to be atheist to enjoy The Golden Compass, but Prince Caspian is a film with one and only one point of view, and shame on anyone who wants otherwise.
Perhaps more troubling is the depiction of the dark-skinned Telmarines as swarthy, barbaric and altogether treacherous. The Narnia books have been frequently castigated for none-too-subtle racist attitudes towards the Middle East, and Adamson’s film does very little to stifle such criticism. In the denouement, Aslan describes the Telmarines as having descended from “brigands” and “pirates.” Note also that Caspian – the rightful, altruistic ruler – is easily the palest Telmarine in the kingdom. I’m not suggesting that the source material be bowdlerized to accommodate a more diverse perspective (ever see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or The Sum of All Fears?), but surely it must be possible to remain faithful to the spirit of the text without perpetuating hateful stereotypes. (Admittedly, there’s a heroic black centaur displayed prominently, but that’s about it.)
Bigger, louder and dumber than its predecessor, Prince Caspian exemplifies that hoary pejorative “sequel.” Given its disappointing opening weekend at the box office, hopefully the Walt Disney Corporation will learn from its mistakes before adapting the next five installments of Lewis’s sweeping vision.
- Steve Kabel
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