There are a few times in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian when the Pevensie children have trouble getting their heads around the changed landscape of Narnia. Having spent a year back in England as adolescents, they return to Narnia to find that 1,300 years of history have passed, and their skills are needed to secure the throne once again.
With the reassuring presence of Aslan the Lion merely a fleeting memory, the only encouragement that he gives the children are brief moments with young Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and a few mildly comforting words: "Things never happen the same way twice." This mantra is essential to the evolving story of Narnia, especially with respect to its screen adaptations.
Adapting any series of epic novels to the screen presents problems with oversimplification, literalism, and practicality. But unlike the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, which focus on the struggles of one main character (with various friends and foes at the ready), Narnia has four main characters to care for.
Watching the four actors playing Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy mature into young adulthood has its own difficulties — the early onset of puberty, for one (a problem the filmmakers addressed by starting work on the second installment before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe premiered in 2005). But there’s also the fact that the Pevensies don’t appear at all in some of Lewis’s later Narnia books.
As it stands, little Lucy commands the most attention on screen — in both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian — partly due to Henley’s impressive screen presence and also to the tales’ prejudice toward the innocence of the young.
But young viewers returning to Narnia (as well as Disney merchandisers) might be sad to learn that many of Lucy’s friends will not be appearing again. James McAvoy’s big-eyed fawn Mr. Tumnus, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and Rupert Everett’s sly fox have been eliminated in the 13-century time lapse between films.
In the ensuing centuries, Narnia has been overrun by another human race called the Telmarines. The Pevensies have been summoned back to Narnia by Prince Caspian, the rightful heir to the Telmarine throne who went into hiding when he learned of his uncle King Miraz’s plan to put his own son on the throne after killing Caspian. And so the Pevensie children vow to help Caspian regain his throne and free the remaining Narnians from their own exile in a dark wood.
The second installment in Disney’s film series seems more at home with CGI elements and computerized fighting technologies this time around. Director Andrew Adamson has added a few complicated battle scenes, while changing the order of some plot elements from the book. His aptitude for the green screen has increased, adding depth to the cinematography of the battle scenes, but he has lost two of the most powerful tools at his disposal — Tilda Swinton and Aslan the Lion.
Swinton’s White Witch brought a surprising element of danger to the first film, and though her defeat signaled the triumph of good over evil, it is hard not to miss her presence a little here. Swinton’s stark and cunning return for mere moments in Prince Caspian brings some of the film’s only true instances of electrifying tension, and her abrupt departure leaves an emotional vacuum in its wake. Liam Neeson’s voice as the mighty Aslan is, of course, still a reassuring presence in the Narnia chronicles, but his onscreen time is limited in Prince Caspian.
Of course, the Christ allegory at work makes some headway in the film, as the older Pevensie children and some of the Narnians lack the faith that Aslan will come through for them and demand proof of his existence. Nonetheless, his absence is sorely felt while the children grasp for ways to fight the Telmarines on their own.
In Aslan’s absence, the film focuses on the title character, who struggles to reconcile his sheltered upbringing with the reality of his family’s violent history. And while Ben Barnes makes for a dashing heroic image, his wooden delivery and stilted Spanish accent provide little consolation for what is lacking in character development.
There are some who do make solid efforts toward winning the audience’s affection: Peter Dinklage’s dwarf Trumpkin is a faithful, smart warrior, while the rapier-wielding mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) seems tailor-made for animated wit.
And there are moments that are cinematically satisfying in this installment. Adamson makes fine use of the winged birds at his disposal; the Narnians’ method of disposing with Telmarines by collapsing their own fortress makes for a great, though confusing, battle scene; and a brief appearance by a vengeful water god alludes powerfully to Old Testament violence.
Nonetheless, Prince Caspian lacks some of the intimate detail of the first film, a problem that seems likely to grow as future installments attempt to adapt the increasingly diverting and symbolic series for the screen.
In his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," C. S. Lewis said that he only wrote a children’s book if "a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say." If Disney really does hope to make enough money to justify creating all seven of Lewis’s Narnia books as films, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out what it is they’re trying to say.
Meghan Keane is a film critic for the
New York Sun.