*The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (PG)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
The weight of history hangs over The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and only partly through the lives of the four Pevensie siblings.
In World War II-era London, only a year has passed since Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) returned from the events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yet they lived through their adolescence and into adulthood as kings and queens of Narnia. Upon their return to that strange world, they discover that centuries have gone by. They're kids revered by Narnia's inhabitants as heroic legends, now forced to live up to those legends while back in gawky bodies.
The filmmakers behind the Narnia adaptations must understand the feeling. Not only must they maintain fidelity to the much-loved C.S. Lewis books, they also must walk in the shadow cast by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Returning director Andrew Adamson adds some juicy subtext to Lewis' simple, plot-driven adventure. The children are whisked back to Narnia when Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) the heir to a throne usurped by his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) blows Susan's magic horn for aid. And the return can't come soon enough for Peter, who has become a sullen brawler back in our world. As Peter competes with Caspian for leadership of the magical Narnians they've been hunted to near-extinction and their land taken over by Caspian's race, the human Telmarines Adamson and his co-scripters wrestle compelling drama out of Peter's puffed-up sense that asserting his authority means going to war, even if it's not a particularly well-planned one.
In these scenes, Prince Caspian achieves an unlikely power. At other times, it starts to feel uncomfortably like an attempt to recapture not just the success of Lion, but that of Lord of the Rings. Dwarves with surly dispositions join the battle against evil. Men and beasts participate in a huge castle siege. The tide of one battle is turned by the sudden appearance of powerful walking trees. Stop me if any of this rings a bell.
Of course it should, given the close relationship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But that doesn't change the sense that Prince Caspian has a lot to live up to, even when compared to the series' own previous installment. Castellitto makes for a creepy enough Miraz, but he can't possibly match Tilda Swinton's White Witch (who makes a brief, chilling cameo here) from Lion. Eddie Izzard provides a lively voice for the warrior mouse Reepicheep, but the character's presence nevertheless Disney-fies the film a bit. And the climactic battle is a little too similar to Lion's finale.
There's also the small matter of Aslan the lion, once again voiced by Liam Neeson and once again on hand to solve all the unsolvable problems like a furry leo ex machina. As spectacular, engrossing and surprisingly well-acted as much of Prince Caspian may be, the stakes don't feel as high when we know our resident Christ-figure can swoop in at any time and take care of business.
Yes, he's a crucial figure in Lewis' worldview, and Prince Caspian succeeds largely because of its effectiveness at showing the need to surrender ego and embrace a belief that stretches beyond oneself into the past. Going forward, however, each Narnia film faces the opposite challenge: shaking off the burden of what has gone before, and becoming something singularly itself.