Monday, May 19, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Review

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of my least favorite movies of 2005. I felt trapped in the theater for the film's overlong 143 running time. From the CGI animals to the stilted child actors the first Narnia film just didn't work for me at all. Having learned the three most enjoyable elements of Wardrobe were either absent (James McAvoy as Tumnus, the children's guide) or greatly reduced (Liam Neeson's voicework as Christly lion Aslan and, most importantly, Tilda Swinton's delightfully evil White Witch), I approached Prince Caspian with a masochistic sense of duty.

Much to my surprise I actually enjoyed Prince Caspian a lot more than its predecessor, perhaps because of the darker themes. Gone are the 'good' Narnians (fauns, CGI animals) fighting 'bad' Narnians (minotaurs, etc) and in their place are an evil bunch of humans who have all but committed genocide on Narnians. The plot here, set centuries, in Narnian years, after Wardrobe, is much more mature, dealing with the political intrigues of the ruling empire. Affairs are set in motion by the attempts of the evil King Miraz to replace rightful heir, Prince Caspian, with his own son. While I found this plot somewhat more compelling, it was far from special. Eragon cribbed the Lord of the Rings just as effectively as Caspian.

One of the areas that helped Prince Caspian, for me at least, was in the slight de-emphasis on CGI characters. While plenty are still present they don't hold as frequently important roles here as in Wardrobe. While CGI has come a long way, it is still very rare that it goes unnoticed (which is the ultimate goal). Many directors would be wise to look at the Star Wars series for inspiration in this regard: A New Hope, made in 1977 with intricate costumes and scale models, holds up better today than The Phantom Menace, which was made full of the latest CGI trickery less than a decade ago in 1999.

The battle scenes here, important to any epic, are a mixed bag. The film's climactic battle scene, feeling like it lasts forty or fifty minutes, is extrapolated from a mere three pages of Lewis' source material. Perhaps, Andrew Adamson missed what Lewis was goig for? The scene is mercilessly drawn out. Two action scenes come off more memorably. First is a one-on-one duel between eldest Pevensie, Peter, and the leader of the evil empire. William Moseley (Peter) acquits himself well as a swordsman but the scene is marred by problems in production and editing. Most effective of all action scenes is the attempted to infiltration of the evil empire's castle. The scene is not only visceral and exciting, but leaves the viewer with genuine emotion in its immediate aftermath. It is far more effective than the film's climax.

As in the first film the child actors fail to make much of an impression. Most effective of the bunch is Georgie Henley as the Pevensie sibling, Lucy, though I remain uncertain if her work is particularly better than her fellow child actors or if her character is just more appealing. Peter Dinklage makes the best impression of the supporting players here. Playing somewhat against type, Dinklage (Death at a Funeral, Find Me Guilty), as dwarf Trumpkin, delivers a wonderfully gruff performance. His delivery works both as a stone-faced comedic reprieve - more effectively even that Jackson's occasional comedic use of Gimli in Lord of the Rings - and as the soulful heart of the movie. If any impression is made from the acting here, it is certainly from Dinklage. Heavily hyped Ben Barnes is nothing special at all. Looking something like a long-haired Timothy Olyphant, Barnes lacks the gravitas to play this sort of character effectively. In much the same way criticism is pointed at Orlando Bloom in the Pirates series for not 'feeling' manly enough for the part, Barnes lacks that special something necessary to be an action hero. Why Brit actor Ben Barnes dons a foolish Spanish accent - he sounds like he's doing a ridiculous Antonio Banderas impersonation - is beyond me, none of his fellow evil empire-types speak with as ludicrous an accent. The quasi-relationship between Caspian and eldest Pevensie girl Susan also feels terribly misguided. In addition to the obvious age gap (Barnes is seven years Anna Popplewell's senior), Caspian's character seems like a 'man' while Susan is still a 'girl,' which make the flirting scenes somewhat uncomfortable to watch.

Like in Wardrobe, I struggled with the overt proselytizing of Prince Caspian. Why is it necessary to have Aslan ramble ceaselessly for the film's final fifteen mintues about courage, faith, self sacrifice and resisting tempation? Is the average filmgoer so inane that these worthy messages can't be gleamed from the film itself? Perhaps the film's most effective scene is when Peter is tempted to turn to the evil White Witch for help after a set back, does this scene not deliver the message of resisting the easy road? Does not Lucy's doe-eyed faith in Aslan, despite his long absense and the misgivings of her friends and family, effectively deliver the message of not doubting your beliefs? The last fifteen minutes of the film were so unbearable as to mar the entire experience for me.

Strangely, I actually hold hope for the next Narnia film (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Much like the Harry Potter series moving from a lesser director to a far superior one may help the series to grow. The first two Potter films were directed by Christpher Columbus and while they were adequate adaptations they were far from special, it took a far superior director in Alfonso Cuaron taking over to bring the series to its current heights (not to mention crafting one of the best fantasy movies of the decade). Perhaps Michael Apted (Amazing Grace) replacing Andrew Adamson (who prior to Narnia had only co-directed the first two Shrek films) will be the boost the Narnia series needs.

Overall Score: 5/10

Prince Caspian Trailer

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