Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.22.08


I Want to Believe
Narnia still isn’t quite magical enough

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN: Directed by Andrew Adamson. Written by Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the book by C.S. Lewis. Cinematography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Music, Harry Gregson-Williams. Starring Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Sergio Castellitto, Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis. Walt Disney Pictures, 2008. PG. 144 minutes.

The Pevensie kids flank Prince Caspian

Oh, Narnia. I would like to think that, like the Harry Potter series, the Narnia films will find their footing with the third movie, the imaginative, exciting Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But I’m not holding my breath — though, to be fair, the dull second Harry Potter film gave no sign of the smart sequel to come.

Narnia, though, is a different sort of imaginary world. C.S. Lewis left much up to his readers’ imaginations, leaning on a sort of quaint Britishness that infused his pages with the feeling that an old uncle was telling the story. Unlike, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Lewis’ Narnia hasn’t spawned calendars and posters and other endless artistic renderings. And so it is that all of us who fell in love with Narnia as children have entirely different versions of it in our heads.

Mine, alas, is not so storybook as that of director Andrew Adamson. When his Pevensie siblings — bossy, touchy Peter (William Moseley); pragmatic Susan (Anna Popplewell); clever Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and wide-eyed Lucy (Georgie Henley) — find themselves back in Narnia, where 1,300 years have passed during one year in their world, they immediately garb themselves in colorful Narnian clothing that makes them look more like they’re playing dress-up than like the kings and queens of Narnia they are. Why are they back? Someone summoned the former monarchs with Susan’s magical horn to save the land from the Telmarines, who took over some time ago. That someone was pretty Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). There’s not much to our noble prince, who butts heads with Peter about who’s got better ideas (and occasionally exchanges a meaningful and out of place glance with Susan).

Adamson does better with scenery and with the various creatures of Narnia than he does with humans, and much of Prince Caspian is full of glorious visions of trees and castles, gorgeous forest glades, tiny badger dens, massive centaurs and sylvan beings. (New Zealand, among other locations, once again offers itself up as a truly magical place.) The book from which the film was adapted is a funny little thing that involves a good deal of storytelling (the Pevensies are caught up on Narnian history by the surly dwarf Trumpkin, smartly played by Peter Dinklage) and quite a bit of trekking through the woods. It’s the kind of book that needs some gussying up for film, to a point. But this point has been well and crossed by the time we get to our second epic battle against the Telmarines (notably swarthier than the Pevensies; I couldn’t help but wonder if the filmmakers gave us centaurs of color in a conscious effort to counteract their depiction of the bad guys as darker-featured).

The first major battle, a brazen assault on the castle of the usurper Lord Miraz (Sergio Casetellitto), begins wonderfully but becomes a sour, heavy-handed yet hollow lesson in how Peter mustn’t try to do things without faith (in Aslan, of course, the massive lion still voiced by Liam Neeson as a feline Jedi knight). A chilly cameo from Tilda Swinton aside, from here on out our heroes alternately develop unexpected talents for military strategy and spend too much time standing still and looking around a battlefield (our heroines are busy finding Aslan and, in Susan’s case, occasionally displaying awesome archery skills, though the movie still requires her to be rescued at least once). There’s little tension in any of the battles as the outcome is always clear and any meaningful losses can be dealt with via Lucy’s magical elixir. But if there’s no tension, there must be magic. This vision of Narnia, with its subtle use of Lewis’ Christian themes carefully packaged so as not to limit its audience, somehow makes the magical land almost mundane, too safe, too simple. But all the same, I’ll set sail with the Dawn Treader when it comes.