One of the major problems with all film series is what might be called middle filmitis. This is when films that are not first in a series rely too heavily upon an audience's memories of earlier films to inform them of the traits of characters, the chronology of prior events, and a general knowledge of the world the film series is set in.
Such is the case with the latest C.S. Lewis adapted book, The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Oh, yes, there are other major flaws in this film, which I shall limn, but middle filmitis is the overarching ill that infects all others. The same was not true with the first film in the series, The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. When I reviewed that film I started out by stating that that film was 1) a more literate and less Byzantine Lord Of The Rings, 2) a deeper and more realistic Harry Potter, and 3) a more mature Oz.
Well, all three claims are still true; however the series has taken a sharp downward turn toward LOTR's Byzantine darkness, Potter's shallowness, and the puerility of Oz. Prince Caspian is not a bad film, merely a passable special effects film, filled with all sorts of magical beings.
Yet, part of middle filmitis creeps in right at the film's outset, when a child is born and a young man flees for his life. We know nothing of the situation, yet the film's camera work and musical score intone great drama and import into a depiction the viewer is in no way invested in. Then we see the returning children from the first film (in ascending order of age): Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Peter Pevensie (William Moseley). Yet, and here is a critical point, it takes a while for the first names of our heroes to be mentioned, thus leaving first time viewers at a loss, and the family surname is never mentioned in the whole second film.
The first film also did a marvelous job of grounding the world of Narnia as an escape by children from the Battle Of Britain over London's skies. This film quickly dispenses with any such outer psychological trappings (and any interactions with elders in the real world of the Second World War), and assumes the audience knows all that went before. Yet, this robs the protagonists of a key motivation, and the audience of a major means of sympathizing with the kids.
The audience that saw the first film is simply told to forget what complex and bizarre relationships unfold before them (despite logical gaps the book likely explains), and just recall, and identify with these kids they already know and (presumably) care about, while the newbie is basically told that characterization does not matter. But it should, since so much of the Narnia trip involves the children slaughtering many living creatures, and showing absolutely no remorse nor guilt over it, even though they surely must have seen what the Nazi onslaught wrought in their day to day lives as Londoners.
This lack of psychological realism leads into the film's second great flaw: Hollywood action film quipitis. This is where characters do not talk in normal conversational tones (a great strength of the first film, and something which raised it far above the dumbed down LOTR series). As example, note how the kids, who spend the bulk of this film killing the invaders of Narnia, simply use Ahnold-like quips to convey what they will do next, to each other and the Narnians — who have picked up remarkably quickly on such asides. They also soon give each other mere glances, the way superheroes do, meaning, 'Ah, you don't realize that my sibling can do this.' Even quips become superfluous. But, again, this utterly trashes any real and deep characterization.
In the first film, as example, Edmund propels much of the action in that film, due to his lack of confidence and selfishness, which is preyed upon by the White Witch, and used against the Narnians. In this film, nothing like that occurs. In short, there is not a single ounce of inner turmoil within these children, all at the ages when self-confidence is at a low. Instead, we get Peter acting like an ass, Edmund playing Robin to Peter's Batman, little Lucy obsessed with the magical lion Aslan, and Susan defined only by her ambiguous budding sexual feelings for Prince Caspian — i.e. a pointless love story that is a) not fulfilled, and b) not in the original books. Hence, why is it added? For realism? In the midst of a CGI gorefest?
Thus, another problem arises — the darkness of this film. Whereas the first film was set mostly in the white of winter, and the cinematography was well lit and stunning, and the expressiveness of the characters was shown (especially in the four children), this film will have none of that. It is dark, dark, and (did I mention?) dark; not only in theme, but literally in the murkiness of much of the film being set at night, even one spectacular invasion of a castle. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub has to bear the blame for this visual mess, for the first film's cinematographer, Donald McAlpine, did a great job filling the screen with something interesting in every corner.
Finally, and as a natural corollary to Hollywood action film quipitis, we see the kids plunge into battle against adults and never seriously get injured. The two boys act like superheroes, and Susan shows she is an expert bowman as she plucks off dozens of men on horses, while never getting hit by their weapons. She even kicks the asses of much larger opponents. All of these flaws take Prince Caspian down to the Lowest Common Denominator formulaic level of the relentless Dumbest Possible Action plot devices of the LOTR series.
Naturally, this film suffers from many of the same ills the second film in that series, The Two Towers, suffered from. Prince Caspian is just so predictable. I knew whenever a creature would surprise a character, whenever a heroic action would come, the sort of quip one of the kids would make, exactly what the villains would do, and why. This is entertainment for children? Well, it should be said that the film was released in concert with a video game, and that is what this film was — one long, 137-minute video game, nothing more. Yes, there are well constructed action scenes, and cute animals and dwarves that speak with Postmodern irony, and there are some mythic elements that can be studied a bit more in depth than the King Arthurian Lite that comprises the LOTR series, but that just makes the film a passable diversion, whereas the first film augured that the series could be something truly special.
The film's weaknesses, naturally, have to be laid at the feet of director Andrew Adamson, and the screenplay by Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely. The basic plot is this: after the aforementioned birth and escape of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) – although we only learn some of this later – he summons the four children back to Narnia via a horn. Peter has been roughhousing in the London subway, and Susan has been avoiding a nerdy boy with glasses. All four long to return to Narnia. Just as they do, the subway disappears, and they are back in Narnia, at a beach with ruins. We only find out much later that 1300 years have passed in the single year since their first trip.
This assumption of things, again (and often within the script, by the characters) is a sure sign of a failed screenplay. It turns out that the Narnian magical beasts have been driven to near extinction by a group of humans who invaded Narnia — the Telmarines (descendants of Pirates who entered Narnia by accident; we learn this only much later, of course). They are ruled over by a usurper to the Telmarine/Narnian throne, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), uncle to Caspian, who murdered his brother and Caspian's father, to ascend to power. The children basically join forces with Caspian's Narnian legions, who bizarrely take to swearing loyalty to him in record time, and without real motivation, and Peter and Caspian dickwave a bit. Battles are fought, the Ice Witch tries to seduce Peter and Caspian, until Edmund ends that with Postmodern cool.
Through all this, Lucy is the only one who can see Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson). No one else believes her, and the lion's great advice is "Things never happen the same way twice." This is a far cry from the deeper wisdom dispensed in the first film. In the end, however, he saves them all, in a deus ex machina, and sends some Telmarines back to their world, and the four kids back to the London subway, just at the point they left; hence showing that the whole film was merely a delusion of a moment; one of the oldest plot devices in literature. Furthermore, out of the blue, Aslan tells the two oldest kids- Peter and Susan, that they've learnt all they could in Narnia, and will never return. This is when Susan kisses Caspian, and departs.
Some critics have harped on the fact that the Telmarines are all swarthy Spanish Conquistadore types, while the kids are Anglo whitebreads, but for this criticism to have any weight there would have to be a much more nuanced approach to the characterization. All the Telmarines could have been Girl Scouts, and it would not have mattered, for they all act in such manifestly 'bad guy' ways that their being swarthy Mediterraneans is an afterthought.
Similarly, claims that the film relies too heavily on Christian iconography and a Colonial White Man's Burden mindset are rented by the utter shallowness of the screenplay. Christian/Schmistian — Aslan is just a magical lion, at home with any set of mythologies, not just the Christian one. Furthermore, since Adamson, as director, added story arcs the original book did not have, why did he not make some major changes to add zip to the tale? After all, Miraz is hardly a threat, and the fight scene between him and Peter is rather pathetic. Meanwhile, the minute or two that the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) spends in the film is far more intriguing. She would have been a far better antagonist.
Overall, The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian is still better fare, especially for children, than any of the three overblown and pompous LOTR films, but compared to the far superior first entry in this series, it is a profound disappointment. One only hopes that Adamson can parallax the first two films and take the few things that work well in this film, and add them back to the excellence of the first film, so that the third entry, slated for 2010, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, is the best of the trio. Elsewise, fans of The Matrix will be happy that their trilogy is no longer considered the most disappointing sci fi/fantasy series Hollywood has produced.