It’s been a while since I’ve written a movie column, and this week’s selection is already several weeks old, but I’ve been busy and the newspaper has been limited for space. Anyhow, on to the movie.
Let me just say, first of all, that “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is not a bad film. It’s actually quite good in some respects. However, I have a bias when it comes to the books on which these films are based. Unfortunately for the movie’s producers, that bias veers in favor of the material, which means my standards are probably a bit too high. Simply put: I want to be wowed when I watch these movies.
I have been a fan of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series ever since my mother read them to me when I was a child. When I was young, I even enjoyed the BBC miniseries versions of the first four books. Unfortunately, they were filmed in the late 1980s, so the special effects of the time could not match Lewis’s imaginative world of creatures and talking animals the way Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy later did with the creations of Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Even if that era’s visual effects had been up to the task, the movies were made for television and would not have had the necessary budgets to do so, no matter how lovely the English locations looked onscreen. Most of the movies’ talking animals, save Aslan the lion, were dwarf actors in costumes, and other fantastical characters were merely cartoons blended with live action. For years, I hoped that a major studio would finally turn the series into something I could look forward to watching in theaters.
After the success of “Lord of the Rings,” I got my wish, more or less. “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” opened during the Christmas season in 2005, and it became a big hit. Unfortunately, it appeared as though, the director, Andrew Adamson (the “Shrek” movies), didn’t have quite the budget to make Narnia seem like a real place to people like me who had been there many times in our heads (and our back yards). Parts of it worked, but the magic was marred by plenty of moments where the children appeared to be standing in front of a green screen instead of a fully realized world.
Not only was the production design not quite what I thought it should be, but I found the special effects lacking as well. Take Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, for example. They’re the talking animals that take Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy under their wing (or tail?) and introduce them to Aslan. They didn’t blend into their surroundings in the same convincing way that Gollum and the other best computer-generated characters in recent memory have. It almost seemed as if they, and a few other animals, had been taken out of a computer-animated film and thrown into a live-action one.
I had a few other complaints that had nothing to do with the production values, but everything to do with the director’s vision. For one thing, I thought the movie just didn’t feel English enough. I thought it was distracting that most of the animals had British accents, but that some of them, especially the wolves, had American accents. It just didn’t feel right. There were also too many moments where corny one-liners, which felt almost lifted from “Shrek,” spoiled the movie’s attempted delicate tone. On top of all that, the music left a whole lot to be desired. While I had hoped for a rich, destined-to-be-remembered fantasy score, what I heard instead sounded like something out of a Hallmark movie. I especially winced every time vocals kicked in.
While it may seem like I’m completely ripping the first Narnia movie apart, there were several things about it that made it worth recommending to those without extremely (some would say unreasonable) high standards. Tilda Swinton, who recently won an Oscar for last year’s “Michael Clayton,” was fantastic as the White Witch, and Liam Neeson was an inspired choice as the voice of Aslan. Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (“Moulin Rouge,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary”) was also good in the small but important part of Professor Diggory, who owns the titular wardrobe.
Anyway, I reflected on the movie’s most glaring flaws recently when I watched the movie again in preparation for the sequel, “Prince Caspian.” The good news is that the special effects are much better and the talking animals, centaurs and other strange creatures are much more convincing this time around. Some of the action scenes, especially a scene in which our heroes storm a castle by nightfall as they are dropped onto the grounds by griffins, are more fun and less tedious than in the first one. Still, there is probably more action than there needs to be, contributing to the padded 144-minute running time.
Oh yeah, I should devote part of this to the plot, so here’s the quickest I can do. When we last left the Pevenskie children, they had been transported back home after spending years in Narnia as adult kings and queens. They are all on their way to school when they are brought back by way of a magical horn. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are standing among the ruins of their old castle and that it is more than 1,000 years since they left. Prince Caspian has escaped from his own kingdom for fear that his uncle will kill him to become king. Caspian is one of the Telmarines, who invaded Narnia long after the children were gone. Although he expects the legendary kings and queens to help him reclaim his throne, he gets versions of them that are even younger than he is.
The child actors are still good, especially Georgie Henley as the youngest, Lucy. The great Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent,” “Elf”) is a wonderful addition to the cast as the dwarf Trumpkin. The comedian Eddie Izzard was a great choice for the voice of Reepicheep, the warrior mouse. Warwick Davis also has an appearance as the dwarf Nikabrik. Davis is no stranger to fantasy films. He played the titular character in Ron Howard’s “Williow,” and has been in all the “Harry Potter” movies. He even played Reepicheep in the BBC version of Narnia, clad in a mouse costume, of course.
Ben Barnes as Caspian is not terrible, but he’s not fantastic either. Here’s hoping that he develops some screen presence before the third movie, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” debuts in 2010. The Telmarines are pretty bland as far as villains go and don’t leave much of an impression. All of them, including Caspian, speak with a faux-Spanish accent for some reason. I mean, sure, they wouldn’t necessarily speak with English accents, but I found the effect to be pretty distracting.
There’s also one thing about the movie that is unforgivable. There’s a tacked-on love story between Susan, the eldest Pevenskie girl, and Caspian. I wouldn’t have objected to a few flirting glances between the two of them. They are teenagers, after all. But there is no excuse for ending the film with them kissing each other goodbye. It feels like something straight out of someone’s Internet fan fiction.
I’m now hoping that the director Michael Apted can work wonders with the third in the series. I was impressed with his last film, “Amazing Grace,” so why not? It happened for the “Harry Potter” series. After a couple of mediocre outings, Alfonso Cuaron arguably saved the series with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” I’ll have my fingers crossed for the next couple of years because “Dawn Treader” is probably my favorite in the series after the first one.
“Prince Caspian” is rated PG: Parental guidance suggested.