Of all the fantasy series on the screen today, The Chronicles of Narnia could be the only one that espouses the notion of the Great Chain of Being. In C.S. Lewis’ magical world, animals talk and mythical beasts stalk the woods, but only a “Son of Adam” or a “Daughter of Eve” — i.e., Homo sapiens — can rule the roost. It’s a traditional view of the world, perfectly in line with the author’s pervasive Christian message and his ridicule of newfangled progressive ideas. The novel Prince Caspian is largely about a boy learning to be king — a pretty fusty concern even back in 1951, when it first appeared.
But — and this is a big but — Lewis’ writing is never as stodgy as some of his thinking. While his head may be with the divine right of kings, his heart is with the fussy-talking badger and the comic-relief dwarf and the sinuous dryads in the woods. Far more playful than his contemporary Tolkien, or even his current secular-humanist rival Philip Pullman, Lewis knew how to tell a great story, with touches of both poetry and vaudeville.
It’s a pity so little of that Narnia comes through in this adaptation. Directed by Andrew Adamson — who did the previous Narnia film and the first two Shreks — Prince Caspian takes a transitional book in the series and tries mightily to turn it into an epic. In the process, battle scenes are stretched to unholy lengths, mumbly villains get way too much screen time, and Lewis’ lightness mostly goes missing. Though Caspian isn’t a travesty, it’s not a very fun movie, either.
In the 1300 years that have passed in Narnia since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, things have pretty much gone to hell in the absence of the four heroic Pevensie kids, who were elevated to the status of kings and queens at the end of the last book/film. Their castle Cair Paravel is in ruins, the dwarfs and centaurs are hiding, and some of the regular critters have regressed from full-blown anthropomorphism back to growls and grunts. The all-powerful lion Aslan hasn’t been seen in so long that he’s assumed the status of myth, and a swarthy race of human usurpers has ravaged the land.
So of course, all it takes to put this situation to rights is a quartet of English children with World War II-era stiff upper lips and milk-and-roses complexions. First, though, the eldest boy, Peter (William Moseley), has to do the whole coming-of-age thing — and so does his Narnian counterpart, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the throne. Coming of age involves lots of photogenic sword play. For Susan Pevensie (the stunning and bland Anna Popplewell), who’s handy with her bow and arrows, it also involves some innocent flirting with Caspian.
It’s hard to imagine Lewis signing off on the Hollywood addition of romance, since his sympathies tend to stay firmly with plucky, eternally prepubescent characters. (When Susan and Peter start to look and act like adults, they’re banned from Narnia.) Though the script beefs up the older characters’ roles, the ones who make the most impact are little Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley), who still sees the majestic lion walking the forest, and a couple of non-humans: the sarcastic dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) and the verbose, sword-swinging mouse Reepicheep, a CGI creation wittily voiced by Eddie Izzard.
There’s an element of silly, ambling, Time Bandits-type fantasy in Narnia. But you would never know it from the battle scenes that dominate this movie, as if Adamson were trying to create an edited-for-kids version of Saving Private Ryan. To his credit, the director makes it very clear that good guys die in war along with bad guys, and the battles have both stakes and grandeur. But this doesn’t change the fact that Caspian, ostensibly our new protagonist, is a dull, hunky guy with a fake accent that sounds like Mandy Patinkin playing Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. If this movie had an ounce of that one’s sauciness, it would bode a lot better for the series.