Friday, May 23, 2008

'Caspian' is another worthy chronicling of Narnia

In the three years since the last “Chronicles of Narnia” film there have been a lot of fantasy films of varying quality to fill the void including “Stardust,” “Eragon,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Seeker” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Luckily, “Prince Caspian,” though not as good as its predecessor, is still a cut above the rest of the genre.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the most famous of the Narnia books benefited from being the first in the series.
There was a sense of wonder as the Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmond (Skandar Keynes), were introduced to the magical world of Narnia. Some of that wonder is gone as this new film centers on political intrigue and elaborate battles.

Ben Barnes plays the titular prince, who is forced into exile by his evil uncle (Sergio Castellitto). His uncle intends to usurp the kingdom of the Telmarines, a Spanish-esque people who conquered Narnia and killed off (or so they thought) all its magical creatures.

With a special horn, Caspian calls upon the Pevensie kids to help and thus they are pulled way from London back into Narnia. Although only one year has passed for Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmond, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia. The Pevensies join Caspian and the Narnian army to overthrow the Telmarinean reign.

For the uninitiated this probably makes little sense and indeed if you haven’t seen the first film or read the books you will be completely lost. Like the four lead characters, you are whisked away to Narnia and plopped into the middle of a new adventure.

Where the first film concluded with a grandiose battle scene, “Prince Caspian” has them throughout. The battles are well staged, with some well-thought-out strategic maneuvers that showed some imagination on the part of the filmmakers. There is no denying the effects in the film, especially the talking animals, have improved the second time around.

C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia series as a Christian parable, and so the theme throughout the film is the importance of having faith in things you cannot see. The film doesn’t sledgehammer its message home, although it isn’t exactly subtle with it either. Even so, Christian or not, the message that it is essential to believe in things that aren’t necessarily tangible is a good one.
Peter has the story’s main crisis of faith. The film portrays Peter as an arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all hothead, whose unwillingness to listen to others leads our heroes into tragedy. Mosley plays this well as he doesn’t come off as being very likable which is, of course, the point.

As was true with the first installment, the leads are good, but not quite excellent and the focus on action doesn’t give them much room to stretch. With Peter and Caspian taking center stage, the others are largely marginalized, which is a shame.
Popplewell is left floundering in an under-developed love subplot involving Barnes’ Caspian. She is unfortunately not asked to do much more than look beautiful (her make up is always perfect even in battle) while shooting arrows at baddies.

Once again, the sweet and awfully cute Henley is the heart of the film. Although central to the plot, her struggle to keep the faith is lost in the elaborate battle scenes. Keynes is left playing second fiddle to Mosley and Barnes, but he shows isolated flashes of dry wit that are underused.

The acting magic for the original didn’t come from the four leads anyway, but from Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”), terrifically menacing as the White Witch and James McAvoy (“Atonement”), completely endearing as the faun Mr. Tumnus. There was also fine voice work by Liam Neeson as the Christ-like Aslan and Ray Winstone as Mr. Beaver. Aslan and the White Witch make appearances in the latest adventure, but in both cases it isn’t much more than a cameo and that leaves the spark to come from new characters.

Thankfully, “Caspian” has the wonderful Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) as a surly dwarf who really has a big heart and Eddie Izzard (“Ocean’s 13”) as the voice of a courageous mouse warrior. Dinklage and Izzard make every scene they are in better, Dinklage adding a necessary weight to the proceedings and Izzard adding a nice bit of comic relief.

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