In The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, one of the rare sequences of untrammeled wit and fun and light arrives when the valiant, shining-eyed Caspian (Ben Barnes), having assembled a motley army out of the scruffy woodland creatures of Narnia, infiltrates the castle of King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), the evil uncle who has usurped his throne. (We know what a bad guy Miraz is from one look at his ugly, pointed beard. No facial hair should be this sculpted.) The forces of Narnia — spitfire dwarfs, towering centaurs, and other misfits — are the underdogs, but when it comes to sneaking past the royal walls, they have advantages.
The castle itself is impossibly tall — it looks like a collection of mighty elongated chess rooks — and so it helps to have a few griffins soar over the edifice to deposit key fighters. There is also a swashbuckling mouse (blithely voiced by Eddie Izzard), who could almost be a prankish cousin to Puss in Boots from the Shrek films. (Andrew Adamson, director of Prince Caspian, codirected the first two Shreks.) He wriggles up a pole and leaves a castle kitty cat bound in knots. And then there’s the hulking humanoid ram: just the thing to give an enemy soldier a start.
As amusing as this can be, the attempt by Caspian to win back his lost kingdom is really about all there is to the film — which is to say, this is a movie that showcases battle. Lots and lots of battle. As the soldiers pick up their broadswords and begin to slash and plunge, Prince Caspian seizes, and holds, your attention, yet it begins to look like any other mystically righteous clang-of-metal war movie. Creatures or no creatures, we?ve seen it before.
Like the C.S. Lewis novel it’s based on, Prince Caspian follows a tradition of darkening sequels. In pop-fantasy cinema, the trend was more or less set in motion by The Empire Strikes Back, which ripened the underlying foreboding of Star Wars, and it was then followed by the playfully (some would say perversely) demonic Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It took the Harry Potter films an extra installment or two, but that series got gravitas as well — all to the benefit of its hellzapoppin Victorian toy-shop aesthetic. Prince Caspian, taking on a similar spirit, is a fierce and somber battle epic. It features soldiers in pewter armor lined up in rows like a sinister marching band against the Narnians, who stand there with their bows and arrows, trembling bravely at the odds against them. Yet make no mistake: This is also a Disney film, and so there’s nothing too twisted, ignoble, or bloody about it. The real reason Prince Caspian is darker than 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it leans so much more heavily on medieval hardware than mysticism. What’s changed is the ratio of combat to enchantment.
From the start, you feel a comedown in magic. Instead of the wardrobe they employed before, Peter Pevensie (William Moseley) and his fresh-faced siblings now journey to Narnia through a London subway tunnel, landing on a sunny beach with rock formations that look a lot less wondrous than they’re supposed to. Peter, along with Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Susan (Anna Popplewell), has been away for a year, but in Narnia time, 1,300 years have passed, and so has the glorious revolution over which they presided. The creatures of Narnia are now exiled to the woods, and as Miraz, leader of the brutish Telmarines, plots his nasty takeover, Caspian and the Pevensie kids gather the disparate Narnians into that hopeful and collective thing…a fellowship! After the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I realize I’m in the minority in finding the gathering of a fellowship to be a rather blah excuse for the plot of an adventure film. In this case, the doubling up of noble young heroes doesn’t help. As Caspian, newcomer Ben Barnes has pouty lips, an anonymous European accent, and long hair that glows like something out of a teen-shampoo commercial. He comes off like the second coming of Orlando Bloom.
In total effect, Prince Caspian feels a lot more earthbound than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At least, that’s true until a surprise figure shows up, his giant sculpted liquid face rising out of the waves of an aqua green river. Will viewers agree on what this face is? Or will they debate it the way that certain devout legions do when it is spotted, mysteriously, in the shadowed folds of a potato chip? B?