Load of the Rings

Salt Lake City Weekly | May 8, 2008
The weight of history hangs over The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian—and only partly through the lives of the four Pevensie siblings. In World War II-era London, only a year has passed since Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) returned from the events in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, yet they lived through their adolescence and into adulthood as kings and queens of Narnia. Upon their return to that strange world, they discover that centuries have gone by. They’re kids revered by Narnia’s inhabitants as heroic legends, now forced to live up to those legends while back in gawky bodies.

The filmmakers behind the Narnia adaptations must understand the feeling. Not only do they face the challenge of maintaining fidelity to the much-loved C.S. Lewis books, but they walk in the long shadow cast by another fantasy saga. Because let’s face it: Without Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy re-invigorating a thirst for epic tales of mythical lands, this franchise doesn’t exist. And if director Andrew Adamson didn’t think the comparisons would continue beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he was kidding himself.

Yet he soldiers on for his second stint in the Narnia director’s chair, and manages to add some juicy subtext to Lewis’ simple, plot-driven adventure. The children are whisked back to Narnia from a train-station platform when Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes)—the heir to a throne usurped by his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto)—blows Susan’s magic horn for aid. And the return can’t come soon enough for Peter, who has become a sullen brawler back in our world, a teenager who still thinks of himself as a king and bristles at any perceived insult. As Peter competes with Caspian for leadership of the magical Narnians—they’ve been hunted to near-extinction and their land taken over by Caspian’s race, the human Telmarines—Adamson and his co-scripters wrestle compelling drama out of Peter’s puffed-up sense that asserting his authority means going to war, even if it’s not a particularly well-planned one.

In these scenes—and earlier, when the Pevensies explore the ruins of their one-time palace, Cair Paravel—Prince Caspian achieves an unlikely power that immerses the film in a sense of consequence. At other times, it starts to feel uncomfortably like an attempt to recapture not just the success of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the success of The Lord of the Rings. Dwarves with surly dispositions—including the Pevensies’ companion Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage, typically delightful)—join the battle against evil. Men and beasts participate in a huge castle siege. The tide of one battle is turned by the sudden appearance of powerful walking trees. Stop me if any of this is starting to ring a bell.

And of course it should, given the close relationship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were friends, colleagues and fellow devotees of ancient myth at Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s. But that doesn’t change the sense that the Narnia films have a lot to live up to, even when compared to the series’ own previous installment. Castellitto makes for a creepy enough Miraz, but he can’t possibly match Tilda Swinton’s brilliant White Witch (who makes a brief, chilling cameo here) from Lion. Eddie Izzard provides a lively voice for the warrior mouse Reepicheep, but the character’s presence nevertheless gives the film a more Disney-fied sensibility. And when the climactic battle between the Narnians and the Telmarine army is joined, it’s too similar to Lion’s grand finale to really pack a punch.

There’s also the small matter of Aslan the lion, once again voiced by Liam Neeson and once again on hand to solve all the unsolvable problems like a furry leo ex machina. As spectacular, engrossing and surprisingly well-acted as much of Prince Caspian may be, the stakes don’t feel as high when we know that our resident Christ-figure can swoop in at any time and take care of business. Yes, he’s a crucial figure in Lewis’ world-view, and Prince Caspian succeeds largely because of its effectiveness at showing the need to surrender ego and embrace a belief that stretches beyond oneself into the past. Going forward, however, each Narnia film faces the opposite challenge: shaking off the burden of what has gone before, and becoming something singularly itself.


*** (three out of four stars)

Starring Andrew Moseley, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes.

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Rated PG.

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