Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The League Watches: Chronicles of Narnia - Prince Caspian

After the rush that was completing the 3 film cycle of "Lord of the Rings", getting through yet another adventure of Harry Potter (the boy wizard who collects doom like stamps), and wrapping up Lucas's 6 film Star Wars cycle... it didn't seem at all a bad idea that Disney produce the entire run of the well-loved CS Lewis children's novels, "The Chronicles of Narnia".

Before seeing "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", I actually bothered to read the book. In, like, an hour. It's a kids book, and its pretty short.

Also, for some reason I ate Arby's before going to the movie, and that was just a bad call. I go there, like, once a year, and I genuinely felt ill when I walked out the door.


I've never read Prince Caspian, and I didn't plow through it before Jamie and I headed off for the matinee today, so I didn't have much in the way of expectations. I'd given the previous movie a solid "B". It was entertaining, the effects were convincing enough, and I thought Tilda Swinton was good. The kids were typical kiddie actors, mostly going through the motions rather than seeming to have any internal combustion going to really convince you that they were doing much but going along for the ride.

"Prince Caspian" is a very different story, and the land of Narnia has had the magic sucked right out of it by some vaguely Spanish humans, and the whole place has become a subplot for a better movie. Perhaps "The Two Towers", which it shamelessly lifts from throughout.

The kids are older, but their acting chops haven't improved much. The gentleman cast as the titular Prince Caspian is the sort of non-threatening pretty boy you expect out of a movie series this Disneyfied, without resorting to CW-style casting.

The plot basically revolves around a very-Hamletish power grab by Prince Caspian's uncle, whose name I never caught... but, man... can that guy do Evil Movie Tyrant #2 with the best of 'em. No scenery was free of teeth marks. The power grab leads to Caspian ducking out of the castle, which looks quite a bit like a LOTR castle, and running away. Which will become a theme throughout the movie. Caspian and Co. run away at every available opportunity.

For some reason, Caspian's fleeing causes the Evil Uncle to declare war on woods he should believe are almost entirely empty. I'm not really clear on the story, and mentioned to Jamie about an hour in "I have no idea what's going on". So I'd hate to make any conjecture that isn't accurate. Caspian blows the horn of Gondor, which summons the four kids from the last movie back to Middle Earth. Or Gondor. Where they team-up with Peter Dinklage (the respectable little person actor), and discover its been some time since they were last in Gondor. And now they're stuck fighting with Spanish conquistadors.

I didn't particularly care for the movie. Jamie suggested I entitle the review "Prince Cat-Stain". But, I told her, I don't work blue. She had a few other suggestions, but none of them were any more flattering than "Prince Cat-Stain". But that'll give you an idea of how it went.

I am guessing that the novel of Prince Caspian, like LOTR was to The Hobbit, much more complicated than its predecessor. Thus, its all about cramming in everyone's favorite scenes, advancing the plot whether it makes sense or not, and getting to the fight scenes, already.

In case you missed the press around the last Narnia movie, we're to understand that there's some religious allegory going on here. And, indeed, the last movie must have seemed a bit too subtle for the audience. As much as the plot seems full of inferences and non-sequitirs from a narrative standpoint, each hint about the nature of faith comes down like a bag of hammers.

The movie comes in at a glacial 2+ hours. I'm not sure, exactly, where things went off the rails here, but once your audience is aware of the situation (or as informed as the filmmakers ever make us), spending an hour watching your heroes sort things out is simply cumbersome. And dragging out poorly choreographed fight scenes isn't good for anybody.

Probably due to the time constraints, and therefore rushed scripting and poor editing... the movie has a few scenes which just sort of happen and make no sense. Somehow the four Brit kids know all about prince Caspian and his plight, when nothing which occurs before that scene would lead the kids to know anything about Caspian or his plans. There's another odd scene in which there's some grafitti on a cart, and the Ming-like bad-guy uses this an excuse to get his general to kill three his men... and it... makes no sense. (Plus, wow... how is that going to help morale?)

Like I said, there were large portions of the movie I simply wasn't following. There's a pretty large assumption you know the first movie very well, as well as that you're going to make assumptions about royal lineage, military maneuvering, political fact-mashing for personal gain, etc... noen of which is really outright explained. It just sort of happens.

Also, Narnia kicks ass. It's full of talking bears, minotaurs, and looks like a Dokken album cover. The kids are given royal authority over all the animals, and get to live for, like, a hundred years and wear really neat armor. So why, on earth, do they head back at the ends of these movies? That's a sucker's game.

I continue to find the mix of pagan iconography within the Narnia movie a bit baffling. It seems odd that Harry Potter and Co. take a hit in the Bible Belt, but this mish mash is okie dokey.

Perhaps somewhat more bizarre is the Aslan death clause of the movies, which depicts the teenaged heroes dispatching soldier after soldier with no qualms, all in the name of Aslan. I guess the lion is supposed to be a cuddlier version of Jesus, so we're supposed to buy into the idea that we should be stabbing people who are browner than you (yeah, I found the ethnic casting of the baddies a bit... unnecessary) for our God-allegory. Which... wow.

Further, Aslan in this film sort of talks like a huge, toothy fortune cookie. Stating things like "Things don't happen the same way twice". Which he says twice. And, apparently he never really feels like he owes his long-suffering people an explanation as to why he (God) abandoned his people to the horrible Spanish people for 1300 years, only to return when it was absolutely necessary to the plot.

Was Aslan off in Gondor on some much needed vay-cay? Appearing in a tortilla on Endor? Apparently he's a capricious allegory.

The message of "faith" in the story, at least as framed by the makers of this film, is that it doesn't do anyone but the four little white kids a lick of good. Holding out for 1300 years for a break seems like an awfully long stretch, and one couldn't really blame the Narnians for maybe thinking Aslan had turned his back on them as he reportedly left Narnia right after the heads of state, and allowed a mass extermination of the happy talking animals.

In addition, there's a bit telling the viewer that not jumping off a cliff to certain doom is demonstrating a lack of faith. Which... what? What kind of crazy religious allegory is Aslan running here? Despite their faith in lion/ Jesus, our heroes also run away at every opportunity. I don't think at any point in the action do they stand their ground. They're quite cowardly. Apparently jumping to your death is expected by Aslan, but holding your ground in battle to protect Aslan's kingdom is a bit up in the air.

He moves in mysterious ways, indeed.

From a narrative standpoint, I'm not going to write the filmmakers a blank check because they're playing the religious allegory card. Either your allegory works, or it doesn't. And I thought this movie did a pretty poor job of doing much but dispensing mixed messages and reinforcing some not terribly Christ-like ideals, like killing folks. Putting religion out there doesn't make your narrative bullet-proof, and, honestly, I would expect more out of the film-makers as per a sense of responsibility to the viewer in maintaining a clear message.

All in all, whatever worked in the first movie just falls apart in Prince Caspian. And there seemed to be some commentary of the wisdom of pre-emptive military strikes not going the way you think they will, which I wondered if I was the only one noticing that...

I did not like the constant jokes about the little people/ dwarfs being short. Including a belabored scene between a mouse and poor, poor Peter Dinklage. And teh bad guys all wore 300-inspired masks which looked like their Ming-like leader and his "look, I'm evil" Satan-inspired chin slinky.

Add in items lifted from LOTR such as set design, story elements and sequences like the Ents... and, it was kind of embarassing. And the end dragged and dragged. And was, for reasons I can't put my finger on, unintentionally hilarious.


I want my afternoon back.


Asha BG said...

Hey there Prince Caspian is one of the biggest movies this year.
I have heard a lot of good reviews of it.
I am going for it this weekend!
Can't wait to see it..

Anonymous said...

I didn't think the book was all that great either.

The League said...

Hi Asha.

Biggest movies only means they sold some tickets. It doesn't mean the movie was necessarily great.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the movie. Alas, I did not.

And I confess, rhpt, I am curious to read the book to see what changes they made for the film.

J.S. said...

Asha, on Rotten Tomatoes over 60% of the reviewers who saw this movie liked it (and I've read a number of reviews myself who said it was pretty good), so you should probably just count The League's review as one among many and go see this movie if you want to, anyway. If anything, I think I'm MORE curious than ever to go see this movie now that The League disliked it so much and so many other people liked it. I'm always curious about movies that have sharply divided reactions. (plus, The League has strongly disliked a number of movies that I've enjoyed and which did well in theaters- The Matrix springs to mind as a good example).

Anonymous said...

The NPR reviewer mentioned that half of the movie was taken up with 2 long battles and that the director apparently felt you can never have too much galloping!

The League said...

I'd be inclined to agree. The battle scenes became a bit tedious. And battle scenes have all looked the same since Braveheart, so you're just sort of waiting to see who wins rather than being amazed at the action.

I should mention, they also sort of lift from that movie "Troy" for part of the battle.

Steven said...

Your post here is about as good a reason to be an atheist as The God Delusion &mdash Thanks Disney for ruining our bronze-age delusions!

Anonymous said...

the makers of Prince Caspian kept to the original story in some ways and strayed in others... i heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case

The League said...

Really? I kind of thought the movie suffered from death marching the audience through lengthy, unimpressive battle sequences...