The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

(2008) ** 1/2 Pg
144 min. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director: Andrew Adamson. Cast: Peter Dinklage, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes.

/content/films/3069/29.jpg"Things never happen the same way twice, dear one." Sage advice from a talking lion—though the Christ-like Aslan refers to the latest fate of human children in the strange land of Narnia, he might as well be talking about the film he's in: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Director Andrew Adamson got away with 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a story that's conspicuously difficult to damage, but, y'know—what the lion said.

At first, Prince Caspian seems smartly realized, hewing closely but not slavishly to C.S. Lewis' children's novel. But with the lion's share of the book used up by the halfway point, it becomes evident Adamson is willing to jettison Lewis' "quaint" (I'd say loveable) whimsy and mythical acumen in favor of more martial sequences that'll sucker in the Lord of the Rings crowd. The problem with Americanizing (or Disneyfying) the likes of Lewis and Tolkien is that it's difficult to imagine the characters pausing in the middle of a quest or battle for a spot of tea and cakes—though that's exactly the sort of thing that happens in the books.

Anyway, Adamson and co-screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely start out on the right feet, by tapping into the first film's strongest virtues: the well-chosen ensemble of youth actors, a coterie of colorful supporting characters (among them the always-great Peter Dinklage as dwarf Trumpkin) and talking beasts (including mousy swashbuckler Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard), and gorgeous location photography round about the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Poland, and Slovenia. And don't discount the strong contributions of special creature and makeup effects by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero.

With little concession to uninitiated audiences, the film begins by alternating between the backstory of Narnian "heir to the throne" Caspian and the return to the land of dearly departed royalty: Queen Lucy (Georgie Henley), King Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Queen Susan (Anna Popplewell) and High King Peter (William Moseley). In London, they're kids grudgingly awaiting a train to boarding school; back in Narnia, they're heroes whispered of in legend. Though only a year has passed in London time since the kids returned home from a lifetime on the Narnian thrones, 1300 years have passed back in Narnia. Finding their beloved palace of Cair Paravel in ruins, the kids realize they've been called back for a reason.

The Narnians are living under the thumb of a conqueror: King Miraz of the Telmarines (Sergio Castellitto of Mostly Martha). Miraz's moral-minded nephew Caspian (Ben Barnes) learns he's marked for death, so escapes to head up the Narnian resistance. (It doesn't help talented Brit Barnes to be saddled with an exotic Euro accent and generic dialogue—he comes out the grinder seeming bland.) Meanwhile, when Lucy—and Lucy only—gets a glimpse of Aslan (voiced again by Liam Neeson), no one will take her word on faith. This bit of theological noodling has the potential, reached in the novel, to be richer than the previous story's rather basic Passion play, but Adamson is too busy careening toward big battle scenes (a reference to the enemy's "war machines" is an especially ominous sign of the outsized bombast to come).

And thus Prince Caspian loses its way, indulging Adamson's yen for majestic heraldic pomp and epic sweep instead of providing unbroken character arcs. The film doesn't convey strongly enough what has been lost in Narnia over the years since its "Golden Age" prime and, therefore, what there is to gain in the high-stakes battle for the land (a battle so tied to the environment, in fact, that the land and sea themselves rise up to liberate Narnia). As for principal villain Miraz, he could've used more of the comic bluster with which Lewis quickly imbues him on the page—on screen, he's a deathly dull menace.

Granted: interpolations to the novel are a necessity, but some of the omissions are senseless. By not depicting Caspian's boyhood awakening, Adamson guts his hero's journey from blindness to sight. Gone are scenes of Lucy waltzing with trees and Caspian romping with fauns, scenes that had a chance of recapturing the first film's essential sense of wonder. And why cut Lucy following an invisible Aslan back onto the proper path, a scene of Lewis' that suggests a deft homage to Mary Stevenson's "Footprints in the Sand."

Lewis' Christian allegory, though present, seems much quieter in the much noisier screen Caspian. And though Caspian's source material isn't inspired or diverse as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the prose remains as effortless seeming as Adamson's film feels labored. The filmmakers seem only dimly aware of what makes the novel continue to work today: not spectacle, but vision. Engaging the imagination is essential on the page, but can be a test in the literalizing, visual medium of film. For Lewis' charmingly twee style and light touch with character motivation, it's time for us, like the Pevensie children, to hit the books again.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 12/2/2008

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Another holiday release with astonishing AV detail, the Blu-ray edition of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian delivers a crisp and detailed image with perfectly accurate color rendering and excellent black level and contrast. The DTS HD 7.1 surround soundtrack can only be described as powerful; it too is a reference-quality, definitive rendering of the filmmakers' intent, replicated the theatrical experience for your home theater.

The three-disc Blu-ray set is exemplary in its collection of bonus features, beginning with an entertaining and energetic commentary by director Andrew Adamson and actors Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, and Anna Popplewell. That's also available on the DVD, unlike the BD-Live interactivity offered through your machine's internet hookup or the expansive new Blu-ray feature also found on disc one, dubbed "Circle-Vision Interactive."

"Circle-Vision Interactive: Creating the Castle Raid" kicks off with an intro by Adamson (2:01) preceding a special menu giving access to a number of features about the castle raid sequence: individual audio commentaries by Adamson, costume designer Isis Mussenden, producer Mark Johnson, stunt and fight coordinator Alan Poppleton, visual effects supervisor Dean Wright, and special makeup and creature designer Howard Berger (6:49 each). Also here are special menus depicting areas within the castle--"Telmarine Casualty," "On the Scaffolds," "Gateway Alley," and "Courtyard Nightshift"--with clickable icons leading to narrated slide shows and brief featurettes about what was filmed in each area. Left and right arrows reveal there's more than what initially meets the eye: a 360° simulation of that area of the set (complete with crew standing around). There's also a handy, clickable index of all of the featurettes for easy access.

"Inside Narnia: The Adventure Returns" (34:38, HD) is a jam-packed half-hour making of that's a cut above the rest. Covering the reunion of cast and crew, story adaptation around a core theme, directorial approach, characters, the locations and their unique challenges, makeup effects, visual effects, character animation, and the cast, with a special emphasis on the particular talents and cameraderie of the young leads, this doc rounds up all of the key cast and crew for interviews, as well as offering a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage.

"Sets of Narnia: A Classic Comes to Life" (23:35, HD) goes deeper in exploring the film's locations and sets, while "Big Movie Comes to a Small Town" (23:13, HD) details what happens when 1200 Hollywood actors and technicians descend on a Slovenian hamlet. "Previsualizing Narnia" (10:03, HD) deals with pre-production design, including digital animatics.

"Talking Animals and Walking Trees: The Magical World of Narnia" (4:43, HD) is an overview of Narnian flora and fauna wherein cast and crew reveal their favorite talking creature. Ten "Deleted Scenes" (11:17 with "Play All" option and audio intros by Adamson, HD) have unfinished special effects, but they're definitely worth a look. "Picking Marshalls," for example, is a charming trim with a nice feel for the C.S. Lewis source.

"The Bloopers of Narnia" (3:06) is a hoot, with kids and creatures alike flubbing their lines. "Secrets of the Duel" (6:41) hones in on the cinematography and choreography of the duel between Peter and Miraz. "Becoming Trumpkin" (4:45) partly serves as a salute to Peter Dinklage and partly as a document of the special makeup he wears in the film. Lastly, "Warwick Davis: The Man Behind Nikabrik" (11:11) does much the same for Davis, while documenting a day in his life on the set.

With a third disc housing a Digital Copy for portable playback, this set is a bargain for Narnia lovers.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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