By Matt Connolly
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Dir. Andrew Adamson, United Kingdom/U.S., Walt Disney Pictures
The rise of live-action fantasy franchises adapted from beloved literary sources has particularly highlighted the complicated relationship between films, the books they’re based on, and the filmgoers who may or may not be familiar with the original written works. For more fastidious fans, viewing the filmed version of a favorite book becomes an almost clinical act of comparative scrutiny; when a cherished character is altered, established chronology is twisted, or plot points are altogether expunged, literary devotees cry foul and dismiss the film as betraying the spirit of the original work. While such critiques frustrate those who insist upon the inherent metamorphoses any literary work must go through to successfully translate poetic words into evocative images, their validity should not be dismissed. Some film adaptations do lack the richness and depth of their sources, and fans find solidarity and solace in crafting a cultish bubble where rarefied knowledge of source material becomes the Rosetta zone of true appreciation.
Even if it results in disappointment, this outside understanding that fans bring also means filmmakers can potentially rely upon audience members to fill in gaps of meaning within the narrative. For viewers unfamiliar with the adapted books, it then might be an oddly distanced film-going experience, as one understands that an image or moment is significant without fully grasping why. This becomes particularly frustrating in the realm of fantasy, as immersing oneself in a vibrant alternate universe becomes contingent upon a deep understanding of how this imagined world operates.
My issues with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian are most certainly not rooted in concerns over fidelity to source material. I couldn’t tell you how true the Andrew Adamson–directed adaptation is to C.S. Lewis’s original novel, having read it well over a decade ago. Indeed, having cultivated little taste for the fantastical epic, I’ve approached none of the major fantasy franchises of the new millennium (The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia) with a working knowledge of their mythology or characters. Unsurprisingly, the most personally satisfying of these films were those that convinced me to enter their mystical realms of spells, fantastic lands, and thinly veiled political/religious allegories through distinctly cinematic terms. I’m no Lord of the Rings fanatic, but the image of wizened wizard Gandalf seemingly falling to his death in The Fellowship of the Ring proved to be a piercing moment, both because of Ian McKellen’s irresistible performance and Peter Jackson’s visual construction of the character as vital, wise, and a pleasure to watch. One doesn’t have to be fluent in Elvish to feel the aching gap left by his absence.
In comparison, Prince Caspian is all shallow iconography: a parade of portentous images just nondescript enough to have Narnia newbies like myself wondering what exactly the big deal is. The narrative remains clear throughout, and its religious symbolism will be legible to anyone remotely familiar with Christian tradition. But rarely does the film make a compelling case for investing in its own mythology, as if merely presenting established elements from the books would be enough to inspire audience affection and sympathy.
Prince Caspian picks up one year after the first film in the franchise, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie (played by William Moseley, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, and Anna Popplewell, respectively) long to return to the mystical land of Narnia, where they previously escaped World War II-era London and helped benevolent talking lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) defeat the evil plot of the White Witch. When mysteriously called back, however, they discover that hundreds of years have passed within Narnia, and the idyllic, if embattled, world of talking animals and kindly mystical creatures has been replaced by destructive human rule. They are summoned by the youthful Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), who narrowly escapes the murderous machinations of his power-hungry uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Together with a contingent of dwarves, fauns, and animals, Caspian and the Pevensies battle Miraz and his corrupt palace comrades over who will rule Narnia.
Given the amount of time it spends on the battlefield, some have deemed Prince Caspian darker than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If one judges such things based on body count alone, perhaps it is. But nothing in Caspian particularly disturbs because nothing is specific and tangible enough to warrant attachment. All four of the Pevensie children remain charming but interchangeable, defined by the broadest of character traits (Peter’s serious! Lucy’s stubborn!). Though Keynes has added an intriguingly self-aware skepticism to Edmund, the performances largely remain one-note, with moments of sibling connection feeling more like calculated tonal change-ups than organically discovered insights. They’re positively Altmanesque in their energetic spontaneity, however, when compared to the lethargic palace intrigues that take up much of the film’s first half. Barnes’s vacant performance only underlines the leaden familiarity of the Caspian-centric scenes, with their half-hearted stabs at Hamlet-ish familial betrayal. So much feels second-hand within Prince Caspian, particularly the central battle sequences. Adamson rips pages right out of the Peter Jackson playbook in his filming of the conflicts, with swooping bird’s eye views of soldiers surging toward the enemy and knowing, “here we go” glances between supporting characters before the tumult commences. They project capital-G grandeur simply because they evoke memories of earlier, better combat scenes.
The film attempts to engage in the sort of mythologizing that can add meaning and resonance to familiar images. Because Prince Caspian builds its fantasy universe on borrowed imagery and fuzzy characterizations, these moments feel half-hearted, and somewhat exclusionary to those audience members unfamiliar with Lewis’s books. No doubt a Lewis fan has built up much affection for the beloved Aslan, whose absence through much of the film is consistently brought home through visual and verbal cues. But, while Neeson’s voiceover work predictably balances warmth and gravity, the computer-generated feline merely exudes bland beneficence, adding little to the fantasy genre’s long line of mystical mentors besides a splash of anthropomorphism.
Such sterility proves particularly disappointing given that Adamson managed to craft some genuinely intense and sinister moments within The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Complaints over the series’ blatant Christian symbolism focused particularly on the death of Aslan within the first film. By embracing the crucifixion imagery, however, Adamson gave the scene a lurid primal pull. Most crucially, he had the wisdom to cast Tilda Swinton in the role of the White Witch. Black feline eyes coldly flashing under a mane of matted orange tendrils, Swinton gave the role jolts of nervy energy that enlivened even the most perfunctory scenes. Her brief appearance within Prince Caspian serves to highlight how sorely her presence is needed within the film. “Peter dear!” she coos when laying eyes on the eldest Pevensie, and the unstable mixture of quasi-maternal concern and carnal seduction that quivers through her line reading lingers in the air long after the slash-and-cut battles fade from memory.
Prince Caspian sporadically achieves such moments, as when Aslan conjures up what appears to be a water spirit to battle Miraz’s soldiers. The river swirls upward to form a towering, bearded figure who silently delivers his wrath upon the enemy: a tantalizing flirtation with religious allegory that leaves the interpretation up to the viewer. Whether anticipated after multiple readings of the book or experienced fresh within the theater, it’s an enveloping moment of hold-your-breath wonder. It stands out all the more in a film that, for this uninitiated viewer, felt both curiously remote and dully familiar.