It was pretty.
That was the recurring thought I had yesterday after seeing Prince Caspian, the sequel to 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, based on the second (or fifth, depending on which order you use) book in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. As one of the four films I was anticipating this summer, I went to see the film, and came away feeling that as a technical achievement the film succeeded, but that ultimately it was hollow and bereft of story logic.
Prince Caspian is an awkward book. Lewis’ story is told in two parallel narratives that only connect two-thirds of the way into the book — the first is a riff on Hamlet as the regent Miraz usurps his nephew Caspian’s throne, and the second has the Pevensie children return to a vastly changed Narnia that bears no relation to the one they ruled as the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, and they find Caspian and help him to defeat his own people. There’s very little continuity between Wardrobe and Prince Caspian; the world of Caspian is called Narnia, but it may as well be a different fantasy world entirely. Other fantasy writers — Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance — chronicled tales in their worlds across the span of thousands of years, yet the worlds remain recognizably the same as the other eras. Caspian, the book, feels as though it was a standalone book onto which Lewis grafted the Pevensie children, to give it a sense of continuity.
Any film was bound to improve on Lewis’ novel. Simply streamlining the story for the screen would remove some of the awkward structure of the novel, much of which is told in flashback. And the screenwriters were quoted early on as saying that they wanted to deal headfirst with some of the issues of the Narnia books that Lewis had never dealt with — the major one being, for the Pevensie children, what it would be like to grow to adulthood in Narnia, and then return to childhood and have to live it all over again on Earth.
The resulting script, however, looks like plaster layered over a broken foundation — it looks pretty in places, but the underlying structure is going to shift, and when it does shift, it looks bad. Much of the first hour isn’t terrible, with Caspian’s flight from the Telmarine fortress and the Pevensie’s arrival and journey across Narnia. And the final battle isn’t devoid of interest, even if it’s rather derivative of the staging of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, right down to the march of the Ents. And I can’t really let the summoning scene pass, where Nickabrik attempts to summon the White Witch; while this does happen in the book, it doesn’t get as far as it does in the film.
I wasn’t interested in the final battle, per se, but rather in Peter’s tactics. Peter refights the last war, only the Telmarines are technologically and militarily more advanced than the White Witch was thirteen hundred years before, and his army twice pays the price for that. While there are two major battles in the film, they aren’t bloody, nor are they as intense as anything out of The Lord of the Rings. Comparisons to the armies of Mordor approaching Minas Tirith are superficial at best, but I could really have done without the deus ex machina of the Ents (or something quite like them) defeating the Telmarines. (In The Two Towers, the Ents had a legitimate beef with Saruman, while in Prince Caspian the trees are simply woken by Aslan and sent to the front.)
It’s the things in the film that don’t make sense that’s the problem. The treatment of the Pevensies return to childhood from adulthood is treated inconsistently — Peter is petulant, unbefitting a King, while it’s played as a joke in terms of Lucy, and it’s not clear that the Pevensies ever learned anything from growing into adulthood in Narnia. If Miraz had to build a bridge for his armies to cross the river, how did Peter’s army cross that same river for their attack on Miraz’s fortress? After attacking Miraz’s fortress and killing dozens, possibly hundreds, of Telmarine soldiers, why would the Narnian army be welcomed back to the fortress as liberating heroes? Susan and Caspian — where did that come from?
Ultimately, Prince Caspian is a pretty film, but not a very involving film. The production design was fantastic. Ruins felt like ruins. The Telmarine castle looked like nothing else. The Telmarine suits of armor were incredible to see, and their trebuchets were awesome in action. The film looks epic, but it’s the story that doesn’t feel epic.
I can’t say that I was disappointed in Prince Caspian, because I wasn’t really expecting anything, in spite of the fact that this was one of the four films I was most anticipating this summer. It’s a pretty film, it works on a technical filmmaking level, but as a story Prince Caspian carries all the baggage and all the faults of Lewis’ novel. If you want a visual feast, Prince Caspian is your film. If you want a solid story that engages the viewer, look elsewhere.