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The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian   B

Walt Disney Pictures / Walden Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Andrew Adamson
Writers: Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on the book by C.S. Lewis)
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Peter Dinklage, Pierfrancesco Favino, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson.

Review by Rob Vaux

Prince Caspian fails to equal the first film in Disney's new version of the Chronicles of Narnia only because its source novel was a bit of a step down too. Not a huge drop -- and certainly containing eerie and admirable energy all its own -- but like a lot of sequels, its magic was a bit more threadbare the second time around. There's not much to be done for it. Make any but the most perfunctory changes and you dishonor author C.S. Lewis' vision, which director Andrew Adamson loves and appreciates far too much to let happen. We must accept the slightly diminished aspects of the novel as well as its intact wonders... and there are certainly more than enough wonders here to make the effort worthwhile.

As the dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) admonishes in the trailer, "You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember." Though the four Pevensie children have only been back on Earth a year -- just enough time to get used to life as non-adults again -- many centuries have passed in Narnia. The kingdom has since been invaded and occupied by Telmarines (thinly veiled Spanish conquistadors, smacking a tad too much of Lewis' xenophobia). They promptly launched a war of genocide against Narnia's magical creatures, driving them into the wilderness where their descendents live in hiding to this day. Several hundred years later, the Telmarines believe them extinct, until the titular heir to the throne (Ben Barnes) is targeted for assassination by his usurping uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) and flees into the "haunted" woods just ahead of the guards. In desperation, he uses a magical artifact -- the ancient horn of Queen Susan, which will summon help whenever it is sounded. Back in London and still riding out the Blitz, the Pevensies find themselves pulled back into the land they once ruled... now in the hands of a new enemy and gearing up for a very different kind of war.

Adamson quickens the pacing this time around, with a greater focus on both swashbuckling derring-do and Narnia's more awkward metaphysical conceits. It gets the adrenals going quite nicely, though a few visual moments tread a bit too close to The Lord of the Rings for comfort. The Christian subtext is still there, of course, mixing heavy-handed lessons on humility and faith amongst heroic last stands and the desperate storming of an impregnable fortress. Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) returns, but initially only Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) can see him -- woe be to the unbeliever! -- while a number of uncomfortable theological questions hang in the air that Prince Caspian never quite gets around to answering. (Why did Aslan wait 1300 years and consign generations of Narnians to systematic extermination instead of setting things aright earlier?) It can be a bit much at times, though Adamson adds nothing that wasn't present in Lewis' text and the pertinent lessons still have appreciable value.

The villains prove a bit of a letdown as well. After the unfiltered Awesome that was Tilda Swinton's White Witch, Miraz and his generals feel much more by-the-numbers. Adamson ironically compounds that shortcoming with a five-minute cameo from Swinton (expanding on a similar passage in the book). The sequence itself is magnificent, as the Witch tempts both Caspian and Peter Pevensie (William Moseley) with promises of aid against this new foe. But her brief appearance reveals a great void in the Cool Bad Guy department during the remainder of the film, and while Castellitto does his best, the mundane machinations of his character accomplish little more than holding the line.

On the other hand, the implications of the Witch's presence make for far juicier material that Adamson develops to marvelous effect. The Telmarines don't differentiate "good" magical creatures from "evil" ones, forcing former enemies to work together against a common threat. This plays out best in one of the story's most memorable characters, Nikabrik (Warwick Davis): a dwarf who hates the Telmarines with all his heart, but whose ultimate loyalties lie with far more dangerous figures. (This is Davis' second trip to Narnia, having played Reepicheep the mouse in the BBC version of the tale.) Other beloved figures are conjured with honor and respect, though they don't quite steal the show the way they might. Dinklage has a good handle on Trumpkin's grumpiness -- dour and sarcastic without undue caricature -- while Eddie Izzard adds his unique voice to the dashing Reepicheep. The Pevensies (Henley, Moseley, Anna Popplewell, and Skandar Keynes) are older and tinged with sad wisdom, grappling with the reality that -- as much as they love Narnia -- their connection to it is always temporary. Barnes is rarely more than ruggedly handsome, but he that's all he needs to sell us on Caspian: a young man who may be in over his head, but has resolved to do the best he can regardless.

By keeping them all intact, the remainder of Prince Caspian flourishes as well. As he did with the first film, Adamson overcomes some of the book's better-read-than-spoken dialogue and the odd bits of chunky plotting with plenty of grace and charm. Though well over two hours, it hums energetically, and by the time the final credits roll, we can't help but feel a little sad for leaving again. Narnia is still a special place -- even for us godless humanists -- and Adamson never wavers an inch in delivering it to us warts and all. Lewis topped Prince Caspian with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, arguably the best of his seven-book cycle. The work on display here reminds us that it -- and the remainder of the novels as well -- are in very capable hands.

Review published 05.17.2008.

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