Movie Review: Prince Caspian
By Matthew Huntley
May 27, 2008

*You* were the one who authorized a $250 million budget! The blames falls on you.

Anyone unfamiliar with The Chronicles of Narnia, either as movies or as part of C.S. Lewis' classic literary series, should not start their experience with Prince Caspian. Even though this is an exciting, action-packed fantasy, not having seen the first installment, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or having read the book), may leave you scratching your head over the story and characters. The movie doesn't provide the usual recap montage that brings us up to speed on the plot. You would still do yourself a service to see Prince Caspian because of how well-made and entertaining it is, but take the time to familiarize yourself with the Narnia world first.

With that said, there isn't much of a story to Prince Caspian. It is more or less a series of chase scenes and battle sequences, both on large and small scales. Like many sequels, this one doesn't have to bother setting up its premise or most of its characters. Unfortunately, it also doesn't develop them much more than it did the first time around. The movie is mostly action and spectacle, but unlike Speed Racer, the action and spectacle in Prince Caspian serve a purpose and have a greater consequence. They're also more varied and staged with such vibrant, noticeable detail, they generate a considerable rush.

The story finds the four young Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - returning to Narnia 1300 years after their first visit. You'll recall in the first movie (or maybe you won't) they discovered Narnia, a magical world filled with dwarves, centaurs, minotaur and other mythical creatures, through a wardrobe. Here they met Aslan, a gold-furred lion voiced by Liam Neeson who's also Narnia's leader and protector, and joined him in fending off the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton). The Pevenises stayed in Narnia through their adulthood as kings and queens, but at the end of the story, they returned to London and became children again.

It is now one year later for them, and they're magically summoned back when Susan's horn in Narnia is blown (they transport to Narnia via the London underground). Only Narnia isn't the same place as when they left. It now lay in ruins after a horrific genocide has taken place by a race of men called Telmarines, who wiped out the Narnians and drove them into exile in the woods. The Telmarines are now led by the tyrannical Miraz (Sergio Catelitto), who ordered the death of his own brother, Caspian IX. After Miraz's wife bears a song, Miraz orders the death of his nephew and the kingdom's next true heir, Prince Caspian X (Ben Barnes).

Thanks to a warning from his tutor, Cornelius (Vincent Grass), who also taught him the history of the Narnians, Prince Caspian escapes to the woods. He meets the now-bitter exiles and discovers the stories were true, vowing to lead them against the Telmarines and restore their freedom. One of the dwarves, a feisty but loveable fellow named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), is saved by the Pevensies from near death. They all join Caspian in the good fight to free Narnia.

As I mentioned, there's not much to Prince Caspian as far as story is concerned. The filmmakers are content with having the movie move from one action sequence to the next without exploring any deep character dynamics. It would have been richer experience had the screenplay explored the psychological effects the Pevensies' absence from Narnia has had on them. They can remember ruling and fighting as kings and queens; but now they're attending school with regular kids. Peter is obviously angrier, stronger and more irritable than he was before. Back in London, he frequently gets into fights. Why would the filmmakers choose to bypass these frustrations? We would have gotten to know the Pevensies more.

But what the movie lacks in substance it makes up with grandiose action and marvelous special effects. This is a true fantasy picture with all the right trimmings - mythical creatures, corrupt despots, enormous field battles, intense sword fights, breathtaking, picturesque locations and mysticism. Director Andrew Adamson shows most of the movie outside in the daylight, which makes the visuals all the more impressive. With other fantasies like Lord of the Rings and The Golden Compass, so much took place at night, which the story could have arguably called for, but with Prince Caspian the filmmakers worked with the sun and natural light, and it looks glorious. Aslan is especially detailed and sharp. More time and detail has been devoted to the rendering of his fur.

Then there are the magnificent battles themselves, the best of which takes place when Peter decides to preemptively (and hastily) strike Miraz and the Talmarines in their own castle. The buildup and execution of this sequence pays off sensationally thanks to convincing effects, patient editing and good timing. Tension builds as the human characters fly around on griffins and each creature prepares for battle (there's a nice comic touch when three mice warriors figure out how to handle a sleeping cat).

But all the battles would have been for naught had they merely been technical exercises. Luckily, I found myself emotionally engaged in the battles and actually cared and wondered about their outcome. The drama mattered and I became sad when creatures died, a sign the movie has successfully manipulated me.

The movie is also surprisingly violent. Disney and the filmmakers seem to have taken more risks this time by showing intense, hard-hitting fight scenes in which people and animals actually die. In a sword fight between Peter and Miraz, the two actors make it look like they're actually fighting and hurting each other. I'm sure Disney was able to secure their coveted "PG" rating by ensuring we don't see one ounce of blood in the entire picture, but even this degree of violence makes it a more credible and passionate movie.

I was a fan of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I remember thinking its shortcomings rested with its pacing and performances. Prince Caspian feels more mature - its direction is more confident, the action has more weight, the children have become better actors (especially the young Georgie Henley, who will be going places), and the consequences of the story feel more significant, even though there was less story to go around. This first sequel in the "Narnia" series does feel like a bridge between the set up and the next great narrative development, which will likely be in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but even as pure fantasy action and spectacle, Prince Caspian" ranks among the better of its kind.