In December 2005 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rode comfortably on the wave made by The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which had created a huge fan base for fantasy epics, and with partial funding from the Christian Right found itself a very tidy little place in the market, where audiences flocked to watch glitzed-up morals, blatantly PG violence, wonderfully realised creatures and four very English children.
Alas those children did not grow up to be actors, but here they’ve been given a blockbuster script so full of action and adventure and empty of character development and dialogue that it hardly even matters.
Prince Caspian, to do away with the prefix, is set one year after the events of Lion etc., still during World War II, although this is only touched upon visually in the form of soldiers and sandbags. The bomber sequence that opened Lion etc. was actually amongst that film’s most thrilling moments, so it is somewhat of a shame to replace with that the drama of a muddled fist-fight between the Pevensie boys and some bullies and an awkward flirtation between teenaged Susan and an overly-polite spotted boy.
When they are magically transported to Narnia (apparently “magic” feels like being pinched in the ass) the Pevensies take quite a while to realise that a huge amount of time has passed in their absence. 1,300 years in fact. Led by grumpy dwarf Trumpkin (played by The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage, by far the most talented performer on show here) to the magical inhabitants of Narnia, they meet with Prince Caspian, an oddly Hispanic youth exiled by a nastily Castilian uncle, who has usurped the young prince’s throne.
Caspian X, played by English actor Ben Barnes, sounds and looks like the daughter of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. As a leader of men he is utterly unbelievable, so thankfully they have given him an army of digitally-created animals and men in horsehair costumes to lead instead. The creatures are the real stars of this film; the centaurs, minotaurs and fauns are even more brilliantly realised and choreographed than in the first film, and the fact that they are not completely computer-generated shows that films can still be made the old fashioned way, and in fact tend to look better when they are.
Amongst the animal friends, replacing the Beavers of Lion etc., is Reepicheep, a large mouse with a sword and the voice of Eddie Izzard. What could easily have been a disaster in terms of annoying cartoonish characters is actually an under-used and usually amusing little character of some charm. Given that director Andrew Adamson similarly brought us the swashbuckling Puss in Boots, it is notable that the two characters are only barely reminiscent of one another. Mice and cats are two very different types of creature, in personality most of all.
The same praise could not be offered to the character of the badger, who can only be described as camp (he may remind some of George from Rainbow), the squirrel, who is only less annoying than Steve Carrell’s squirrel from Over the Hedge due to lack of screen time, and the bear, who quite literally does nothing but stand, just being a bear, and only once opening his mouth to speak with the voice of David Walliams doing an impression of a sufferer of Down’s syndrome.
Thankfully there is good action on hand, this time with just a hint of blood to make it believable, including one excellent duel and two quite splendid battles, although there are quite uncomfortable parallels between later sequences and scenes from The Lord of the Rings that perhaps could have been avoided. A sequence involving a werewolf, some form of demon parrot woman and a cameo return by Tilda Swinton (thankfully they filmed her scenes before she won the Oscar or they might never have afforded her) is genuinely chilling, and likely will be too much for some small children. While the villainous Miraz may be a tad over the top in terms of evilness, you have to hand it to a man who wears into battle a mask with his own face on it (and makes all his henchmen do likewise) – now that’s supervillainy!
Drama is more or less absent; one sequence in which a number of lovable creatures are killed, tastefully off-screen, is splendidly done. But the leads have no character, a supposed romance is an utter cop-out on behalf of the filmmakers, and Aslan is so utterly indestructible that as soon as he shows up and utters one word of calming Neeson-ness you just know that nothing can go wrong as several Dei ex Machina quickly solve all the problems.
Thankfully there are a few good laughs, largely from Reepicheep, although Edmond, the most charismatic of the lot (and that’s not saying much) has his moments. One dreadful pun, cracked by Lucy, is worthy of deserving a mass walkout by audiences.
Finally, it only goes to say that the music is dreadful. The lead theme, played to death in the first film, is here flogged like an immortal horse until our brains can no longer hum another tune without blood pouring out our ears. A few instances where pop songs play instead of instrumentals kill the mood entirely.
Despite looking very very pretty and having some decent action in it, there is a lot lacking here. But for its target audience, the only thing that will truly dampen its triumphs is its running time of 145 minutes. Its certainly more advanced than the first film in this series, but then, the first film was a bit of a damp squib.