Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I didn't think that the first Chronicles of Narnia movie was exactly bad, just a little on the bland side. It felt like it was trying really hard to be Lord of the Rings, a tendency which got worse as the film went on and was most prominent in the final battle scene, which captured less the excitement of the climax of The Two Towers and more the Gungans versus the droid army from The Phantom Menace. Tilda Swinton was the only real acting highlight and the effects and artwork and so on did little to impress.

And while The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian comes nowhere close to greatness, I can say I enjoyed it a good bit more than the first film - enough to recommend it to anyone who (like me) is a sucker for fantasy movies. I'd place it about on the same level as the first two Harry Potter films, not a masterpiece by any stretch, but at least worth its weight in celluloid.

First off, the technical aspects - the cinematography, the lighting, the special effects, the weapons, the costumes, the sets, the creature makeup, and so on - all get a pretty significant boost from the first, and feel a lot more in line with Weta Workshop's work on Lord of the Rings. It has a rawer, darker, slightly more lived-in feel to it, and weapons look a little heavier and little deadlier. This may not add to the soul of the movie, but it makes the body a lot more attractive. Pretty much the only thing that still occasionally looks awkward is the talking "real world" animals - a talking beaver, a talking mouse, and so on still look a hint off, more cartoon than flesh-and-blood-and-fur beast. The fantasy creatures like minotaurs look great, though.

The movie is also a hell of a lot darker than the first. That this movie got a PG rating is another fun example of MPAA bullshit, because this movie is really, really violent. Pretty much every speaking character (including the central children) happily murders many fellow human beings during the movie's many, many, many battles. In pure percentage of screentime, this movie has damn near as much battling as Return of the King, and for people who (again, like me) like fantasy battling, this is enough entertainment to justify the film. It's all pretty well done, and I admire how the director actually managed to make the "flow" of the battles make visual sense. You see the larger movement of the armies, the way individual flanks and units engage each other, and always understand where the major players are. In lieu of fantasy films that settle for making their big battles an orgy of visual nonsense (see Eragon for more details), this was satisfying.

As for the movie's weaknesses... well, Ben Barnes who plays Prince Caspian and all of the main Pevensie kids are all really, really bland actors (except Skandar Keynes a.k.a. Edmund, who I think has potential) who fail to really make you give a shit about the characters in the drama. Compared to the Harry Potter gang in screen presence, it's not even a contest. The villains are also really generic and instantly forgettable fantasy villains, who don't inspire a hint of love-to-hate-'em goodness. And without likable players to root for in the conflict it's hard to get emotionally involved with who lives and who dies, so there isn't really any "drama" here - just spectacle. If spectacle is enough to entertain you, as it is for me (some of the time), this may be ok, but this film is kind of the fantasy version of empty calories. Fun to watch, but without a lot of depth to necessitate ever rewatching. Also, the climax pretty much redefines the term deus ex machina.

On the other hand of acting though, Peter Dinklage is very entertaining and probably gives the best performance in the film as Trumpkin the dwarf-thingie, and it's always nice to see Warwick Davis (a.k.a. Willow), playing another dwarf-thing, on the big screen.

So when all is said and done, it's another pretty entertaining fantasy movie. It doesn't have the high, epic drama of Lord of the Rings or the likable creativity of the recent Harry Potter flicks, but it's a damn sight better than Eragon and (in my opinion) the first Narnia film. Fantasy fans probably won't regret checking it out, non-fantasy fans will certainly live if they don't.

2 Stars out of 5

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