Call it the sophomore curse. Call it going to the well once too often, in this case twice. Call it the way the Christ-substitute in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, that would be the lion Aslan, does as he explains to sweet little pre-teen Lucy why he in all his goodness has allowed bad things to happen to good people (and to some bad ones): things never happen the same way twice. Whatever the call, this installment of the C. S. Lewis fantasy series with Christian underpinnings is a seriously flat and joyless excursion into the world of CGI, tangled theology, and excellent hair.
The hair belongs to the titular character, the tenth, and possibly last, of that name. Heir to the throne of Telmarine, he’s forced by the kingdom’s regent, his ambitious uncle, to flee for his life into the deep, dark, and forbidding wood when said uncle’s finally gets an heir of his own. The woods are the former Narnia, long since overrun and obliterated by the Telemarines. Caspian is assured by his tutor, who gets him out in the nick of time, that the regent’s men won’t follow him into the woods, but just in case, he hands him the former heir apparent an ancient ivory horn and tells him to blow it if things get out of control. They do almost at once when the regent’s men do, in fact, follow him into the woods, and the horn doesn’t so much rescue Caspian as bring the Pevensie siblings back to Narnia. Not that this does much good for anyone at first. It’s been 1300 years in Narnia time since their last visit, which was one year in their time, and it takes them a while to sort out where exactly they are, to sort out what is going on, and then to sort out exactly what to do about it. A long while. Meanwhile Caspian is getting to know the putatively extinct magical, talking creatures who live in Narnia, and his uncle is telling his council and the people of Telmarine that Caspian has been kidnapped by the Narnians who suddenly seem to exist again. The fact that Telmarine seems to be a province of Italy is never explained.
The first film did an excellent job of juxtaposing the bleakness of life for the Pevensie children, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, in England during World War II. The privations and the painful separation from their parents and all that is familiar to them when they are sent to live in the country to avoid the nightly bombing of London made for a nice poignancy. That’s lost here. The brief glimpse of them in England before the adventure begins doesn’t show them so much coping with a world at war as being petulant, with the former High King Peter prone to fisticuffs in the local tube station. Sure, it must be tough for kids to go from kings and queens to back to normal school life, but provoking a sympathetic response, it doesn’t.
It also doesn’t provoke a sympathetic reaction that the children are all played by actors working at various levels of amateurish lifelessness. Georgie Henley as Lucy has a naïve sort of charm that lets her coast amiably along. Skandar Keynes as Edmund has little to do aside from not being the other three siblings, so he may have more to offer than playing the part of background. William Moseley and Anna Popplewell as Peter and Susan, though, maintain the same air of petulance from beginning to end, even when Susan is supposedly gob-smacked by Capsian’s girlish good looks. Ben Barnes as Caspian, he of the hair that is a miracle of the layer cut expertly executed so that it exhibits both superior pouf and bounce, has the proper unthreatening beauty called for, but no real sense of determination or of gumption. A state of affairs made far worse by the flat direction by Andrew Adamson and pacing that isn’t so much invigorating as repetitive, as in the endless droning of a metronome.
To add insult to those injuries, the film injects an extra battle scene not found in the book involving a nighttime raid on the regent’s castle. Not thrilling, not well-staged, and certainly not helpful as far as advancing the plot, it is nonetheless remarkable for exactly one thing. When running from the fortress, the principals involved stop and look back at the arrows being fired upon them by the Telmarine guards. That bears repeating. They stop and look back. And no, they don’t have magical armor, amulets, or anything else to prevent the arrows from accomplishing their destiny. To say that it muddles the idea of heroism being purveyed here is an understatement of the sort of epic proportions this film fails to achieve. It’s not the only muddle. The Christian element with this Lewis infused his Narnia novels is similarly difficult to divine. The little children shall lead? They do so badly. Turn the other cheek when it comes to killing? There is a fine example of that very idea towards the end, immediately followed by a lengthy bout of general slaughter. Easier to place is the Christian concept of the devil, which, mercifully, makes a brief re-appearance in the form of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton neatly stealing the film with only five minutes of passionate screen time) and the temptation of the quick fix.
There hangs about everything a musty, second-hand feeling. Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin the Dwarf, through not fault of his own talent and compelling screen presence, is an echo of John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli the Dwarf in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Reepicheep the fencing mouse, voiced by the inimitable Eddie Izzard, has the unmistakable cast of Puss in Boots, without Antonio Bandaras’ Spansih accent, from SHREK II and III. The effects, aside from the wall of ice presaging and imprisoning the aforementioned personification of evil, are as tired as the action sequences while also sharing the derivative feel of the piece. The raging torrent that takes on human form to wreak havoc hearkens back to the sand creature in THE MUMMY.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN is a lugubrious and murky exercise, dark even in sunlight, as though shot through a UV lens that was much too strong. And yet the worst about this film would have to be its running time. At almost 2 ½ hours, it’s not just a slog, it’s the kiddie cinema version of the Bataan Death March, differing only in that the demise involved is that of the soul.