The image that spurred the creation of Narnia was that of Mr. Tumnus, the fawn, standing beneath a streetlight. It’s an image of whimsy and wonder, and there are no images like it in Prince Caspian, Disney’s latest entry in the grim and gritty trend in blockbusters.
Of course this isn’t a simple bit of bandwagon hopping but good timing; CS Lewis’ follow-up to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe returns the Pevensie children to a Narnia crushed under the heel of invading humans, the Telmarines. A year has passed for the kids (who are still coming to grips with losing their royal status and age), but more than a millennia has gone by in Narnia. The Telmarines have so thoroughly conquered the land that they consider the Narnians myths; the remaining Narnians hide in the woods, awaiting the return of the kings and queens of old – and having given up on Aslan. Things get complicated when Prince Caspian, underage heir to the Telmarine throne, narrowly escapes an assassination attempt by his uncle, the steward. Escaping to the woods he falls in with the Narnians and inadvertently summons the Pevensies back to Narnia.
Times are dark in Narnia, and that’s reflected in the movie’s almost shocking violence. I don’t remember huge amounts of mayhem being visited upon humans in the first film, so the fact that this movie’s comic relief is a throat-slitting mouse should tell you how much the ante has been upped.
As I kept being surprised by how the Pevensie kids would hack, slash, stab, pierce and bludgeon their foes (all nameless Telmarines, often also faceless due to their helmets) to death, I wondered if I hadn’t suddenly turned into one of those old people, the kind who think children should only be exposed to sweetness and light, especially considering almost no blood is spilled (all of the violence is adventure violence, where our heroes slash with a sword in the general direction of the bad guys’ chest, and the baddies keel right over.
Real Errol Flynn shit). I don’t think that’s the case, though – I’m mostly just surprised by the leap in violence from the first film. I have to wonder how the family audiences who flocked to the first one will react this time.
Interestingly, the violence in Prince Caspian, while adventure violence at its heart, carries moral weight. It’s this aspect that had me wishing that the world of Narnia had been placed in the hands of someone other than Andrew Adamson. It’s not that Adamson isn’t competent but rather that this is just about all he is. When the Pevensie children reunite with the insurgent Narnians, oldest brother Peter leads them on a daring raid of the Telmarine keep. Adamson stages the initial infiltration of the castle well enough, but when the main Narnian force assaults everything gets limp. There’s a cheap quality here, and the scene feels like a TV show stretching its budget, not a major blockbuster. And when the raid fails and a huge number of Narnians are massacred (seriously, the violence here, while mostly implied, impresses), Adamson also fails, not quite capturing the darkness of the moment as anything deeper than a modestly solemn moment on a theme park ride.
Adamson’s inability to take the material to the next level grows more and more annoying as Prince Caspian goes on. In the beginning it feels like a script problem – the first act drags on interminably with endless yakking – but as the scope widens and the stakes keep getting impressively higher, it becomes apparent that this is a fantasy film without much magic. I’m not an apologist for the first film, but it had a spirit that’s missing here. I do have to give Adamson plenty of credit for continuing with large amounts of practical effects; Narnia’s centaurs beat Harry Potter’s pixeltaurs every day of the week.
The Pevensie children remain the same barely inspired casting as in the first film – compare these kids to the Harry Potter cast and you’ll see a huge difference, just in terms of screen prescence. On the upside, this story lets the kids do more and go bigger; Edmund in particular becomes a far more interesting character when he finally faces down the White Witch in a quick cameo by Tilda Swinton that surely paid her mortgage this year.
There are also some new additions to the cast: Peter Dinklage is almost unrecognizable under layers of make-up as a grumpy dwarf (is there any other kind in fantasy?), a role that forces him to make or be the butt of endless short jokes. Eddie Izzard is the voice of the throat-slashing mouse, and he provides some laughs that are almost groan free. The titular character is played by Ben Barnes with an accent and hair cut entirely reminiscent of Inigo Montoya – very fitting thanks to Caspian’s backstory. And then there’s a, as far as I can tell, nameless Jamaican centaur. I just called him the Blacktaur, which would be a pretty great MC name.
If Adamson’s direction disappoints, it’s CS Lewis’ religion that bothers. The religious allegory is much less subtle here than it was in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; when the Pevensies return to Narnia only young Lucy (who would be a cleric in the D&D version of this) sees Aslan. The problem is that the other kids don’t let him in their hearts or some bullshit. Aslan spends the movie out of sight, and only gets involved at the last minute, after hundreds of lives were lost on this movie alone – he’s been missing for a thousand years as the Narnians were victims of Telmarine genocide. Where has this pompous lion been? Chilling out, waiting for somebody to come beg him to get involved (which he does by SPOILER TEXT summoning a giant Jesus made out of water to eat the bad guy. Shades of the Red Sea, of course) END SPOILER TEXT. This is the sort of lame construct to which believers must cling to explain why God isn’t there helping out in noticeable ways – we just don’t have enough faith! But there are two things I have always wondered about God: why does he need a starship, and why does he need to be worshipped? Aslan’s abandonment of Narnia at its worst moment makes him as much a villain to me as the Telmarines. By allowing the slaughter, he’s just as culpable as those who did the slaughter. And so this story about the greatness of God exposes his great evil.
The Narnia films barrel on (towards places that non-believers like myself will find more troubling. I’m sort of excited for my own review of The Silver Chair), thankfully in new hands. This series needs visual stylists who can bring to life Lewis’ expanding vision of Narnia. In the meantime there’s this missed opportunity which, for all its flaws, is an enjoyable enough sword and sorcery movie.