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THE LION AND THE MOUSE

    There's a movie currently at the local multiplex in which a teen-age boy is magically transported to an ancient and mystic realm where he learns important lessons, takes part in several battles, and returns a talisman to its rightful owner. Then the Emperor's breath blows him through an empty door-frame back into our world, where his new-found skills defeat the bullies that started the whole thing.
    This movie is, of course, “Forbidden Kingdom,” and it's a better Narnia movie than the Narnia movie that's showing down the hall.
    As for “Prince Caspian,” the second movie in the series based on the C. S. Lewis Narnia books, it has problems with tone and scale and proportion that were hinted at in the first movie, and are now thundering back like a herd of turtles.
    For those who don't know the books at all, I'll just say that the story is about four kids from our world who are flung into a  land of dwarfs and centaurs and talking animals and treacherous humans, where they help a young prince gain his rightful throne. Along the way there are some tremendous battles, a lot of eye-popping special effects, and some truly glorious landscapes (filmed in New Zealand, naturally).
    For those of you who are fans of the literary Narnia, what you need to ask yourself before you  see “Prince Caspian” is, how much can you stand to see the book messed about with?
    First, as to scale: can any director, given a budget of multiple millions, resist throwing in every CGI he can lay his hands on? The Narnia books are more modest than, say, “The Lord of the Rings,” but when you saw the battle with the White Witch in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” you realized that director Andrew Adamson suffers from a bad case of  Tolkien Envy. His therapist obviously told him to go with it, because “Prince Caspian” is full of enough battles, skirmishes, strategic retreats, duels, ambuscades and other scrapes to confuse a Toynbee. (If this movie had been released in the 1960s it would have had its title carved into the side of a mountain.)
    Of course, audiences tend to like battles with cavalry charges and clouds of arrows, so you can hardly blame the moviemakers for inventing bunches of them, except for one thing: military actions now overpower everything else in the plot, including the return of joy to Narnia.
    Of the seven Narnia books, “Prince Caspian” is the only one that uses dance as a  repeating theme. From the first chapter, when Doctor Cornelius tells Caspian that the two planets in conjunction will not collide - “The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that” - to Caspian's first meeting with the Old Narnians at the Dancing Lawn, to the final triumph when Aslan calls up Bacchus and his maenads to set Old Narnia free, everyone dances. 
    “Is it a romp, Aslan?” Bacchus cries, and it is: “[they] began a dance, far wilder than the dance of the trees, not merely a dance for fun and beauty (thought it was that too) but a magic dance of plenty...”
    Unfortunately Adamson has swept all that aside in favor of more troops and war machines that Old Narnia must defeat with brute force, so you wonder why Aslan bothers to show up at all. By the time we get to the Bridge of Beruna (which looks more like the Bridge on the River Kwai) it's been reduced to a wooden prop for an immense CGI river god to destroy, rather than an ancient stone span that Bacchus pulls apart with his ivy at the river god's request: “Aslan, loose my chains!”
    The whole point of Lewis's story is the return of joy to a land that has suffered under  militaristic oppression and regimentation, but by the time this Caspian gets through with his enemies, you fear that Narnia may be in for more of the same.
    One reason for this fear is the shift in tone I mentioned earlier. This is mainly achieved by making Prince Caspian a whole lot older than he ought to be. When Peter first meets Caspian he sees “...a boy about his own age,” which should be at most 14, because Peter (in Pauline Baynes's illustrations, and we assume she conferred with Lewis) is still wearing the short trousers and knee socks of a Junior Boy in a British boarding school. Ben Barnes ( a Keanu Reeves clone) is in his mid-twenties, and something of a thug. He feels resentful of the High King Peter, rather than liking him very much, as Lewis says he does, and they get into all sorts of disputes that are more appropriate for testosterone-crazed juvenile delinquents.
    In the next installment, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Caspian is specifically called “the boy king of Narnia,” and just as specifically, “a golden-headed boy.” So aside from being too old, and an actor who could maybe give a sock-puppet a run for its money, Barnes also has the wrong color hair; and how they make it do that puffy thing has got to involve a Narnian blow-dryer.
    I suppose what I'm wondering is, if a director doesn't have faith in his material, why is he using it?
    There was actually only one thing about the movie that I absolutely detested, and that was the song used as a voice-over at the finale.
    It seems that every fantasy movie nowadays must be saddled with an anguished, breathy, female singer whispering maudlin, out-of-character lyrics (I include Enya's additions to “The Lord of the Rings” in this category) before the producers will allow the film to be released. 
    Fortunately, in most films up till now, these repugnant songs have been relegated to the end credits, so people like me, who hate them, can either get up and leave or stop up our ears. (What can I say? I think real music stopped dead in 1791.)
    What Andrew Adamson has done is to inch up the abhorrent end-credit song into the movie itself, so that it underscores the last several minutes of the action, including a final attempt to engineer a romance between Caspian and Lucy, which is just embarrassing.
    Lest I appear too much of a Luddite, I will confess to liking one small CGI: Reepicheep the Talking Mouse is possibly the most beloved character in all seven books, and he's a delight to watch here. He's also a delight to listen to, voiced by British stand-up comic Eddie Izzard; everyone should go out and rent Izzard's DVDs and prepare to laugh, and laugh.