Friday, June 13, 2008

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
2 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

During one of the battles in Prince Caspian, the young King Peter (William Moseley) cries out “for Narnia!” just before charging into the fray with his army of forest friends and mythological monsters. My question is, “Who really cares?” The same thing that plagued 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the first installment of this childishly conceived franchise based on C.S. Lewis' books – is what damages its sequel: I don't believe for a second that this place exists, even as a fantasy world. Nor do I believe the characters who live in it, the leads of whom are played by the same batch of annoying kids from the first round (Moseley, Georgie Henley, Anna Popplewell, and Skandar Keynes). The Chronicles of Narnia put these British child stars on the map. Unfortunately, neither they nor returning writer/director Andrew Adamson have the chops to return the favor.

Prince Caspian opens with the Pevensie siblings (Peter, Lucy, Susan, and Edmund) back in England, where they've been living for a year after defeating the White Witch in their first Narnian adventure. They're called back to the magical land when the royal of the title (Ben Barnes) finds himself in trouble and sounds a charmed horn that's meant to summon Narnia's kings and queens of old (that's right – those darn kids). When they arrive, they discover that a thousand years have gone by, and Narnia has been left in ruins and nearly extinct (gone are those fuzzy beavers, the faun Mr. Tumnus, and – for the most part - even the regal lion Aslan, voiced by Liam Neeson). Meanwhile, a nearby kingdom of men with Spanish accents known as Talmarines are searching for Caspian, the heir to their throne who's run off in fear of his uncle, the evil King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Turns out the prince is destined to be Narnia's new leader, but before he can, the Pevensie's must help to take their cherished paradise back from the Talmarines and restore it to its former glory.


There's nothing wrong with Lewis' story. Like Wardrobe, it's a classic, beloved tale that's been enchanting readers for ages. The films draw crowds and sell tickets (lots of them – Caspian is already number one in worldwide box office sales after less than a week in release), but they don't possess the same magic as the books. One of the great things about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was the director's obsessive attention to detail, which made J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth feel more historical than fantastical. The Narnia in Caspian doesn't seem as though it's endured centuries of age and neglect, but rather a two-month shooting schedule. Artifacts and ruins look more like props than ancient relics, and interiors of castles and caverns are more set than setting. Both Jackson and Adamson's films were shot in majestic New Zealand, which is probably about as close as one could get to Far, Far, Away on Earth. But Jackson's Middle Earth feels as if it were born from the country's soil, while Adamson's Narnia was simply brought in by forklift. Perhaps the director should stick to fare like Shrek, from which he got his start. That way, when his movies come off as cartoonish, at least it will have been intentional.

Much more action is on display in Caspian than was seen in Wardrobe, but getting there is an arduous journey. Crucial plot points are disclosed by actors as though they were reading from Lewis' yarn for the first time. How am I supposed to believe in this incredible story if I don't even feel that those telling it do? If you're going to speak to an audience about centaurs, talking badgers, and dancing trees, you'd better sell it, and sell it well. The only natural performers in the picture are Barnes (who should give on-set acting lessons to the aforementioned British foursome) and a rambunctious mouse (who's merely a voiced digital creation). Even seasoned, vertically-challenged actors like Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis get lost behind their makeup as a pair of dwarves and fall flat. Wardrobe had the gift of Tilda Swinton in its corner as the titular witch (who also makes a very brief cameo here). Caspian wastes nearly every one of its assets.


Neeson's Aslan does appear for a short while, and once again, it's clear on what the art department was most closely focused. While the man-made locations in the film only look amazing from afar, cameras can get within point-blank range of this CG lion and still achieve the viewer sensation of being cage-side at a zoo. The golden-haired beast is a masterpiece of computer-based artistry, and one of the few things that makes these films special. Not much positive can be said of the other inhabitants of Narnia, such as minotaurs who look like stunt men in elaborate Halloween costumes. There is, at long last, an epic final battle sequence that features some feisty tree roots with alarming elasticity, a Poseidon-like water creature, and a nifty subterranean surprise. It makes up for the backyard skirmish that concluded the first chapter, but it doesn't change the fact that Caspian feels more like part of a Hallmark miniseries than a $100 million franchise.

Is the movie better than the first? Sure, I guess, but there was a lot to improve upon, a sad fact that hasn't changed much after volume two. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is already in pre-production, with a target release year of 2010. But when movies with this much potential can't even get their visuals right, who wants to come back for thirds?

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