by HELEN GEIB
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is adapted from the second book in C.S. Lewis’s popular series for children, and is the follow-up film to the hugely successful The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Superficial and action-packed, the film is well calculated to please its target audience of tweens and teenagers. Calculation is a poor substitute for warmth and a sense of wonder, and Prince Caspian is decidedly inferior to its predecessor.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe told the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, four young English siblings who discovered a secret door to the magical kingdom of Narnia. After many adventures, the siblings became the kings and queens of Narnia and ruled over the land in peace and prosperity for many years. The film ends with their return to England. Time passing differently in the two worlds, when they return it is as if only a moment has passed, and they will grow older for a second time in their own world.
Prince Caspian picks up their story one year later, in England years. It is several centuries later in Narnia years, and the Narnians have been driven into hiding deep in the forests by the Telmarines, a human people who fear and oppress the magical creatures at the borders of their lands. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are called to return to aid the people of Narnia in their time of great need. They join in alliance with Prince Caspian, rightful heir to the Telmarine throne, to fight against the evil usurper King Miraz and his armies.
One of the principal strengths of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was its strong dramatic storylines: Peter’s assumption of leadership; Edmund’s fall and redemption; the miracles worked by Lucy’s child-like faith. Those storylines gave the film focus, drive, and human interest. Prince Caspian offers the raw materials of comparable storylines in Caspian’s coming of age story, Peter’s struggles to be a good leader, and the siblings’ crises of belief that attends the dislocating movements between their world and Narnia. The film’s failure to develop any of these stories in a satisfying way is its principal weakness.
Caspian and Peter’s stories are dealt with in an almost perfunctory, pro forma fashion. They receive a fair amount of screen time, but no depth; sad-eyed gazes and moping stand in for introspection and growth. The other siblings, and Edmund especially, are reduced in status to supporting characters. The siblings’ situation in particular raises some very interesting questions that are just brushed aside. For instance, only a year ago they were mature men and women who had jointly ruled a kingdom. Now they have simultaneously been returned to childhood and elevated to the status of revered legends. What burdens does this place on them? As they are now, what can they give the Narnians and what can they learn? How do they feel about it all?
Prince Caspian is simply not interested in exploring these questions. Nor is it interested in Christian teachings. Elements of Lewis’ Christian allegory remain in the form of integral plot points, but it has been diminished and sidelined as far as possible.
Instead, the movie has a mania for scenes of combat. It is that more than anything else that seems to have determined the prominence bestowed on the various characters (with teen heartthrob potential a close second). Caspian and Peter are in their late ‘teens, able to participate in intense battle scenes, and thus at the film’s forefront. Susan’s position in the narrative owes much to her facility with a bow and arrow. Edmund, growth spurt still ahead of him, has little to do but act as Peter’s second. Lucy, too young and tenderhearted to fight, is sidelined entirely for long stretches to the film’s considerable detriment.
At the screening I attended, the frequent and frequently lengthy battle sequences were a great hit with the many young people in the audience. They were very attentive and cheered and gasped at all the appropriate places. Unfortunately, those sequences make the film inappropriate for young children. Its PG rating is not ridiculous, but a PG-13 rating would have been more than defensible.
There were parts of the film that I enjoyed, and that pointed the way to a better film that might easily have been. Narnia is a richly imagined world and the fantasy elements are lovingly realized in the production design, makeup, costumes, and special effects. This is a big budget Hollywood film and a lot of that budget shows to good advantage on the screen. The script offers the young actors little to work with, but they are personable and do well with what they are given. There are some good people in the supporting cast, including Peter Dinklage, fast becoming my favorite character actor. The story incorporates considerable comic relief, and much of it is funny.
There are some good scenes in Prince Caspian. When the next film in the series, based on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is released in 2010 I’ll go to see it. But I’ll go in with lowered expectations and hopes for a warmer and less battle-minded spirit.