Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Chronicles Of Disappointment: Part 2 - Prince Caspian: The "Narnia" We've Seen Before Underwhelms.

The Good: Moments of character and acting - mostly involving Anna Popplewell and Peter
The Bad: Same essential plot structure as the first one, Special effects, Pacing, General lack of character
The Basics: The second chapter in The Chronicles Of Narnia disappoints almost as much as the first, largely because it replays the same essential plot, redressed. Prince Caspian feels LONG!

When I first saw The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian, it made me feel that the future for films for young people seemed intensely dismal. Yes, after two and a half hours of Prince Caspian, my first thought was on the previews from before the film. I don't think there was a single film previewed that made me think I might go out to the theaters again anytime soon. More than that, there was not a single film previewed that made me think that the participants deserved to remain in the Screen Actor's Guild or the Director's Guild. In other words, everything forthcoming from Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks previewed looked like it stunk.

I mention this because this was the thing that left the greatest impression on me at the movie theater. That's not entirely true, actually: in my notes on Prince Caspian, I found myself writing down a quote from that night's episode of Lost that made me laugh for - I swear - a full minute: "Jesus Christ is not a weapon." Hilarious. That made my night. Seeing Prince Caspian, on the other hand, did not. Indeed, even though I went in with lowered expectations, I found Prince Caspian did not meet even those. Anyone looking for the next Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!) is going to be disappointed. Anyone looking for something new, something fresh that they have not seen before, is likewise going to be disappointed.

In Narnia, a baby is born to the despotic lord Miraz and his wife, which gives him the muscle to menace the rightful heir to the throne of Narnia, Prince Caspian X. Caspian, fleeing with the aid of his loyal tutor, comes into possession of a magic horn - Susan Pevensie's magic horn - and in his moment of greatest desperation, be blows it. After a year of living in London without any way back to Narnia, the Pevensie children are summoned by the horn and teleported from their subway station to Narnia.

Narnia, alas, is in ruins, having come under siege by the telemarine forces; humans with a different bent who have committed as much genocide on the fantastic creatures of Narnia as they could before the Narnian's fled underground. As Lucy, Peter, Edmund and Susan reacclimate to Narnia and meet up with Caspian and his Narnian forces, Lucy becomes obsessed with finding Aslan. As Peter and Prince Caspian clash over the best way to overthrow Miraz and the telemarines, they marshal the centaurs, minotaurs, dwarves and talking animals of Narnia for an attack on the telemarine stronghold, with disastrous results.

Prince Caspian picks up a year after the events of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!), though in Narnia 1300 years have passed. Abandoned by Aslan and the human kings and queens, the telemarines had virtually no problem sweeping through the magical land and ridding it of its unique, fantasy occupants. And the viewer cares . . . for a very short time.

The fundamental problem with Prince Caspian is that there is pretty much nothing new in the film that viewers did not see in the first. To be sure, it is dressed up nicely and with enough difference to fool a child, but for any adult, this is a film bound to disappoint. Why? It's not a new, clever idea any longer. Just as the first film belabored what Narnia was by spending a bit of time on the process of getting there and the spectacle of establishing the fantasy world, its continuation spends an agonizing amount of time pointing out all of the differences in Narnia versus the Pevensie's memories of it. Prince Caspian substitutes the Peter/Edmund conflict for a Peter/Caspian conflict and the Aslan plot of the first with a "finding Aslan" plot in the second. But then, it degenerates into two big battle sequences, the highlight of which is a one-on-one sword fight between Peter and an adversary . . . much like in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe!

The point here is that we get the principles of Narnia and it is fairly easy for viewers - and the Pevensie children - to see the differences when they arrive in Narnia. So, the plot is belabored and strenuously dull.

Add to that that the character elements are almost entirely neglected to service the plot. A perfect example of this comes rather late in the film when one of the dwarves tempts Prince Caspian with an intriguing offer of an alliance. When that resolves itself, largely through Peter's intervention, there are no emotional consequences that are illustrated. There is nothing to ground the film and make us care; it simply becomes a plot point that was dealt with and an excuse for a cameo in the movie. Caspian is largely a dull character who spends half the film making moon eyes at Susan without any substance to back up his attraction to her or even a decent conversation to illustrate that the two might actually be connecting. As a result, Prince Caspian's potential character growth issue reads like "Romantic Subplot #5." Truly disappointing.

Indeed, the only character aspect that actually works well in Prince Caspian involves Peter. The conflict between Peter and Caspian is forced, largely because William Moseley is a very white bread actor and the character is almost equally bland. However, Peter is characterized perfectly and works in a way that few heroic protagonists do: Peter is a terrible leader. Peter has no innate leadership skills, no ability to rouse his troops and not enough people skills to hold together his family, much less an army. This is a wonderful twist as he walks around Narnia with an implied birthright. He becomes interesting to watch and grumble at because he makes utterly the wrong decisions, illustrating perfectly that he does not have what it takes to be a man of greatness. This, at least, is refreshing and different, especially in a film with a strong Jesus-metaphor like Aslan.

The most interesting character, though, would have to be Susan, if for no other reason than she is arguably the most busy. She seems to be in virtually every plot line; figuring out where the children are when they re-enter Narnia, quickly negotiating between Peter and Caspian and accompanying Lucy on her quest to find Aslan. She is a solid warrior (her quiver never seems empty) and she has a few good lines.

Susan is ably played by actress Anna Popplewell, who delivers a sterling performance as Susan. She has a maturity to her that allows the viewer to believe that her character is a plausible love interest for Caspian and that she could be the warrior woman she appears to be. Popplewell has a decent control of her body language and facial expressions that never wavers; she is constantly in character and always on her mark, something that cannot be said about the others.

The rest of the acting in Prince Caspian is complicated by actors who miss their mark, are looking at virtual characters, but not seeing them and performers who stumble over lines. Several of the extras in make-up look bored in the wide shots and this guts the emotional resonance of many of the scenes.

So, too, do the general special effects. First, director Andrew Adamson tries to cheat the audience with what he might believe is a clever introduction to one of the diminutive characters. As Caspian flees Miraz, he is set upon by the minions of the lord. Those minions take a serious fall in a sequence that - no kidding - mirrors the style and tension of the vampire bunny scene in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Adamson recreates an absurd sequence to introduce a character that anyone who is closely watching the sequence will be unsurprised by the stature of.

As well, the make-up on the centaurs and fawns - especially - is, at best, mediocre. During the big battle sequences, the visual effects take a nose-dive that makes one wonder if The Chronicles Of Narnia was only getting the rejects from Weta Digital to work on the film. Lighting especially is off and there are a disturbing number of instances where the mouse characters and Aslan are lit as if they are surrounded by light (including from below) and not part of the real setting. The point, of course, is that the special effects are not special; they seem like special effects and they become quite desperate, most notably with the Narnian woods.

Even worse is how the film insults the intelligence of viewers with its placidity. I'm not referring to how the film yawns through two and a half hours and feels every minute of that. Instead, I mention this because it is utterly absurd that not a single sword in the film has blood on it. Not one. On the way out of the theater, I heard someone say, "No way was that PG." I disagree; this was very much, at best, a PG film, whatwith the family-friendly language, the multitude of events wherein carnage is left off screen and that carnage never resulting in a bloodied weapon! This is ridiculous and even children are likely to wonder what the deal is.

Usually, I am a stickler for continuity and minutiae, but with Prince Caspian, I found it far too difficult to care. The film is a build-up to battles and the inevitable rise of Caspian to power and the thwarting of the obviously evil Miraz. Here, the only thing that I cared to note as seriously off was the lack of presence of the griffins in the first battle sequence. The griffins bring troops and supplies into the telemarine castle, to aid Peter's strike force. But the griffins do not intervene when the telemarines line up with a deadly line of crossbow-wielding assassins that would be well within their ability to take out. That one thing in a two and a half hour movie; this does not bode well when an avid cinephile is that disengaged by the movie.

That is not to say there are not moments in Prince Caspian that are enjoyable. Susan's part is interesting and there are moments when the telemarine political machinations are actually engaging. But it is not enough to keep adults interested. It is perfectly safe for children; indeed, it might be ideal for them. After all, if one repackages the same drecht in a new wrapper, children usually eat it right up. They are likely to do that for Prince Caspian, which is basically the same as the first - even though characters explicitly say things are different this time! - redressed enough that a child might think it was a different movie.

Even so, Prince Caspian does lead into the much better The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader (reviewed here!).

For other Disney works, please check out my reviews of:
Tron: Legacy
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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