The second film in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, Prince Caspian, is so big, so long, so slow, so stilted, so cheesy, so pumped full of phony-looking CGI that there’s nothing to stop it from making a billion dollars. Because, God help us, this is the gelatinous form the fantasy genre has taken in the past few decades and now everyone has learned to love it, the way World War II-era Brits learned to love Spam.
You’ll read other reviews claiming that, compared to the first film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), this one is dark and maybe even disturbing for the hordes of kids worldwide who will flock to see it. Don’t you believe it. This film is dark the way pearl grey would seem dark if you lived in the Land of Blinding Whiteness. Prince Caspian earns its PG rating through bloodless war, reversible deaths, tiresome moral preachiness, and the cutest, blandest kid heroes ever assembled.
These kids are the Pevensies of C.S. Lewis’ famous children’s classics, Londoners who periodically slip off to the magical world of Narnia to lead epic lives. Here’s how you tell them apart: Peter (William Moseley) is now in his sullen teen years and scowls all the time; Susan (Anna Popplewell) shoots a mean arrow and has the poutiest red lips of the four, which is saying a lot; Edmund (Scandar Keynes) has the most upstanding hair; and Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the small, pious girl forever reminding the others to worship the giant holy lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) that nobody can see but her since he was martyred in the last war.
At the end of the first film, the kids had been crowned young kings and queens in honor of their leadership in defeating the forces of the magnificently evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton). As the sequel begins, they are one year older and very bored when they’re transported back again to Narnia via the enchanted London tube (also Harry Potter’s main mode of travel to the world of magic). However, in Narnia it’s centuries later, and the castle in which the children were crowned is now an ancient ruin. The Narnians, a motley assortment of dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, gryphons, talking animals, feisty trees, et.al., have been driven into hiding by the cruel tyranny of the Telmarines, led by the usurper King Miraz, played by Sergio Castellitto. (The wicked Telmarines are clearly Spaniards, by the way, probably for reasons having to do with C.S. Lewis’ willingness to hold a permanent grudge against all former foes of dear old England) The Narnians, reunited with the Pevensie children, pin their hopes on the rightful heir to the throne, young Telmarine Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) to unite and restore the kingdom.
It’s all very plotty and ponderous. Director Andrew Adamson (the Shrek franchise) isn’t exactly the surest hand in the West when it comes to mobilizing the troops for exciting action sequences, Luckily horses galloping are always beautiful to watch, and that helps the dragging pace of the battles a bit. But the entrancing White Witch who did so much to enliven the first film is sorely missed here. Tilda Swinton as the Witch makes only a brief appearance in Caspian, but she really knows how to goose up the stodgy proceedings of contemporary fantasy. With her odd-angled Renaissance-era face, her cold grandeur, her convincing battle-readiness and barbaric furs and sledge pulled by wolves, she was the perfect antidote to all the glutinous scenes with children learning to have unquestioning faith in a giant supremely-fake-looking lion. I spent the whole first film rooting for her.
There are a few other actors struggling valiantly to breathe life into the proceedings, including Peter Dinklage as the grumpy dwarf Trumpkin. But just the fact that he is a grumpy dwarf shows you how hopelessly recycled all this fantasy material has gotten. In this genre by now, all dwarfs are grumpy, and all characters spend huge amounts of time staring off into space with awed expressions that are cut together with CGI effects meant to represent the things that awe them. All fantasy scores sound like John Williams on his most bathetic day, heavy on the triumphal horns and the celestial choir voices. Fantasy lands must now look like New Zealand. Fantasy talking animals must be voiced by stars like Eddie Izzard as the swordfighting mouse Reepicheep, who’s a less amusing version of the swordfighting cat Puss-in-boots voiced by Antonio Banderas in Shrek II.