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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Darkness in Narnia (Prince Caspian)

Return of the kings and queens

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Harry Potter went darker as the series progressed and the same may be happening with The Chronicles of Narnia. The body count runs high in Narnia’s second installment, Prince Caspian, and some scenes are surprisingly brutal for a children’s movie. This time the Pevensie siblings enter Narnia not through a wardrobe but the London subway, where bullies are knocking brother Peter (William Moseley) against the tiled walls. Through a warp in space and a stitch in time, the siblings suddenly step from wartime London onto Narnia’s bright shores. The setting resembles a Tuscan dream vacation, but soon enough they discover that things have changed in the centuries of time that have passed in the parallel universe since their previous sojourn.

Thus quoth Trumpkin the dwarf: “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.”

Caspian is the rightful heir to the throne of the Telmarines, the human kingdom at the border of Narnia. Played with bland bravery by Ben Barnes, the youthful prince is spirited out of the shadowy, gothic castle with barely minutes to spare. Uncle Miraz (in a grand but never overdone performance by Italian actor Sergio Castellitto) has usurped the throne, plotting to kill Caspian and blame his disappearance on the Narnians. Counting on the bigotry of his audience, Miraz uses the false charge as an excuse to begin a war of extermination against the “vermin” of Narnia.

With the help of Narnia’s long-lost monarchs, Peter, Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), and a coalition of sentient beings, Caspian leads the charge against Miraz to free the Telmarines from tyranny and restore Narnia’s past glory. Prompted from hiding by the faith of Lucy, the littlest Pevensie, Aslan (voiced by a silken Liam Neeson) arrives just in time.

Latin in appearance, the Telmarines’ depiction is lifted straight out of old Hollywood movies set along the Spanish Main. Swarthy and bearded, given to bellowing laughter, Miraz is as rapacious as Santa Anna at the Alamo or any of the villains once battled by Zorro. He is surrounded by sullen henchmen who wear their true feelings under their breastplates and wily counselors who would plunge a dagger into his heart should opportunity arise. The soldiers even wear Conquistador helmets, just in case anyone overlooks the other cultural references.

The Narnians are by contrast multiethnic, their ranks filled with talking mice and badgers, burly centaurs and irritable dwarves. They have their factional divisions but share a love for their land and undying admiration for their unlikely royal family, even though the Pevensies have been absent all these centuries and have grown only two years older. The time-travel element is interesting. Shortly after their return to Narnia, the siblings stumble across a ruin and gradually realize that the crumbling masonry, the pillars reduced to stubs and the courtyard overrun with weeds, was once their home.

Director Andrew Adamson and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub do excellent work in the first two-thirds of Prince Caspian, mingling software applications with the traditional craft of cinematic illusion. The sword-swinging swashbuckling on the castle’s broad stairways is as thrilling as any Robin Hood adventure. There are moments of engaging visual whimsy, as when the Narnian mice scamper up the drawbridge ropes into the castle, trailing tiny swords along with their tails. Some scenes are surprisingly moving, striking righteous and stirring chords against the oppressive, genocidal regime threatening all of Narnia.

In the home stretch, however, the CGI starts to become silly and seen-before. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, Prince Caspian is a little overstuffed for its own good and could have lost a few inches on the film reel. C.S. Lewis’ core insights into the mythology of the returning heroes, the power of faith to summon lions, the political applications of evil and the temptations inherent in the holding of power are retained. But it’s both unfortunate and very Hollywood that the good characters of Prince Caspian seem less developed and memorable than the sardonic bad guys.