It’s a shame that the filmmakers charged with the task of transforming C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books into a bigscreen franchise have essentially tried to stretch Lewis’s very distinctive, elegantly simple books onto the template of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Tolkein and Lewis shared much, but there are very significant differences – not the least being that Lewis wrote spare, tight, straight-ahead novels which ill-suit inflation into 147 minute running times.
A year later in our terms, with the Blitz still on, the four Pevensie children are whisked back to Narnia from Strand tube station when Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) blows Susan’s horn – setting up a very minor but still-innovative almost-romance between the hero and the girl from another world (Anna Popplewell), and snickers from the older children in the audience every time the expression ‘blowing Susan’s horn’ is used. In Narnia, it’s 1300 years later and the secondary world is radically changed (one of Lewis’s great ideas), with the magical creatures driven underground and ‘Telmarine’ humans in charge. Caspian, rightful heir, is fleeing murderers hired by his wicked Richard III/Cromwell-like uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) and falls in with the surviving Narnians — a couple of dwarves (Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis) and some talking animals (Eddie Izzard voices a swashbuckling mouse who might be happier in one of director Andrew Adamson’s Shrek films) – until the legendary High Kings and Queens show up, transformed back into shirty, out-of-their depth kids.
For the most part, this is straight-up swashbuckling intrigue, with many swordfights, raids on castles and battles – with the magic deliberately held in check until a deux ex fluvia finale, though the witch (an otherwise much-missed Tilda Swinton) gets a showy near-resurrection (not in the book) that perhaps shows up Miraz as the conventional, not-very formidable baddie he is. Miraz even gets killed before the climax, leaving his smouldering top general (Pierfrancisco Favino) to handle arch-villain duties for the final battle. Some of the problems of the first film carry over, notably the American writers’ tin-ear for how British kids talked in the 1940s (NB: expressions like ‘sorted’ and ‘I’m not crazy’ weren’t in use), which frequently sabotages the mostly good work of the young cast. Lucy (Georgie Henley), the standout in the first film, gets a duff role here, constantly whining about seeing Aslan (Liam Neeson) while everyone else gets on with the plot). Peter (William Moseley), the stiff last time round, gets to shoulder more action and take a leading role, which perhaps makes his rivalry/friendship with Caspian more heated than the Spanish-accghhented preenthe’s exchange of looks with Susan – while Edmund (Skandar Keyes) just gets a couple of lines reminding us how much more interesting his part was in the last film (again, fair enough – Lewis cannily highlighted different characters in each book, and Keyes and Henley can expect to grow into better roles if they continue with the films).
The big scenes are spectacular, but just a little plodding (too many high shots to show off the fabulous locations) and the narrative support for them doesn’t quite come off – it’s often hard to tell why folks rush off to do things, why their objectives are all-important or where their motives come from (really, what is the general thinking?). Somehow, these state-of-the-art fantasy adventures are less satisfying than the low-tech BBC productions of a generation ago – one of the things that distinguishes Narnia from Middle-Earth is the bleedthrough of elements (the lamppost, Turkish delight) from our world, but here that is tidied away and the slack taken up by dollops of silly voice-over animal comedy.