Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Lion, the Prince and the (Still) White Kids

Fun on today's Pop Culture America includes:

-- A look at the National Recording Registry inductees for 2007 (announced Wednesday).

-- News from the International Museum of Cartoon Art merger with the massive Ohio State Comic Art collection.

-- The Beginning of the End: TV season (and some series) finales).

-- Record Round-Up: Featuring a look at the latest from the one and only Elvis Costello.

-- Weekly Summer Tentpole Film review, which, coincidentally, will feature none other than ...

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (d. Andrew Adamson)

Having introduced his savior character's death and resurrection in the first Narnia book (and film), C. S. Lewis turned his attention to more modern issues of faith with the follow-up novel, Prince Caspian. And appropriately enough, the film is a fairly faithful translation of the books basic plot, which is both a positive and a negative.

Plotting was never really Lewis's strong point. The Narnia novels read like "Boy's Own" adventures (with a few girls thrown in, for good measure), the kind of things that would have been right at home in the pages of Astounding Tales or Cap'n Billy's Whiz-Bang. As a fantasy-adventure franchise, Narnia will always run a pale third behind the truly epic sweep of Tolkien's Rings and Rowling's slyly mature Harry Potter, the two series it wants so desperately to ape.

This time around, the personality-challenged Pevensie children are whisked back to Narnia a year after their last adventure (2 1/2 years later in our time) and discover that 1300 years have passed in that (quasi) magical land. Narnia's talking critters have been beaten down in that time by the Telmarines, a militaristic crowd of swarthy Mediterranean types who are in the midst of a Hamlet-esque royal drama: a usurper has killed his brother, the rightful king, and banished the titular true heir from his kingdom. Fans of The Lion King may recognize the scheme.

In come Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and with a rather sublime absence of motivation, they start saving dwarves and forging alliances and diving headlong into a war they can't possibly have any comprehension of. It doesn't really matter; as in the first book and film, they are merely cardboard prop-ups with no other purpose than to get mixed up in whatever is going on at the time.

At least this time, they're all a lot more violent. Especially Susan who cheerfully spends the whole movie drilling all and sundry with decorative red-fletched arrows. One can see why the warlike dunderhead Caspian takes a shine to her.

Even Lucy who was given a bottle of stuff that heals wounds and saves lives in the previous story stands around on a battlefield at one point surrounded by the dead and the dying and bothers to help only a dwarf and a mouse. And she's supposed to be the adorable one.

The dwarf is played by Peter Dinklage, a terrific actor who must have chomped down hard on a bullet to cash the paycheck for this role. Not even Gimli in the Lord of the Rings was saddled with so many short jokes.

The other major new addition to the cast is Prince Caspian himself, played by relative newcomer Ben Barnes (he had a small role in last year's underseen Stardust). The producers, maybe after watching Tilda Swinton blow the kids off the screen in the first film, have wisely decided not to bring in a co-star who will challenge the kids. Barnes has lovely cheekbones, and not much else. He is the Pevensie's match in blandness.

Director Andrew Adamson, the man behind a large chunk of the Shrek films, once again handles the animated content with aplomb; any given cartoon badger or wolf in this movie has more character than all four Pevensies combined. But he can't overcome the source material's lack of interest in a coherent story. Lewis wrote these books to grind a philosophical axe and preach to the kiddie-winks. His stories aren't terribly interested in the story and that comes through on screen. Adamson isn't enough of a director to overcome that flaw.

It's interesting (to me anyway) that the film takes Lewis's invaders, the Telmarines, who in the book were clearly supposed to be of the Muslim world (the Caspian Sea area) and transforms them into a vague, possibly Hispanic lot. I have no idea what this means, if anything. But the rest of the film is fairly true to Lewis's vision, which makes the change sit oddly on the screen.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian features some skillful, genuinely exciting battle sequences, but the story that gets us there jumps about jarringly an the young cast continues to underachieve. Better luck next time.

2 stars.

3 comments:

SaltLakeBlues said...

Actually it was the Calormenes who represented the Muslim world, Caspian & crew had a distinctly European culture, and given their names (Caspian, Miraz, etc.) I would have assumed a sort of Hispanic background, I def liked the whole conquistador vibe.

Its gonna be interesting what they do when they come to the Calormenes. When I was a kid, those books always bothered me, there's one where a Calormene prince just wants a white woman (one of the English girls)-- it got so part of me wanted to jump into the book and throw down with my brown brothers against those English kids. I reread them though, and I actually like the way some of the Turkish (Cause that's what they are, really) characters are fleshed out villians, heroes, and heroines. Lewis writes his morality plays around them in three of the books, which I kinda dig. And whatever may be said of his plotting skills, one thing I do like about his writing is his ability to infer a back story or depth without spelling it out in th e text or glossary a la Tolkien.

SaltLakeBlues said...

Actually it was the Calormenes who represented the Muslim world, Caspian & crew had a distinctly European culture, and given their names (Caspian, Miraz, etc.) I would have assumed a sort of Hispanic background, I def liked the whole conquistador vibe.

Its gonna be interesting what they do when they come to the Calormenes. When I was a kid, those books always bothered me, there's one where a Calormene prince just wants a white woman (one of the English girls)-- it got so part of me wanted to jump into the book and throw down with my brown brothers against those English kids. I reread them though, and I actually like the way some of the Turkish (Cause that's what they are, really) characters are fleshed out villians, heroes, and heroines. Lewis writes his morality plays around them in three of the books, which I kinda dig. And whatever may be said of his plotting skills, one thing I do like about his writing is his ability to infer a back story or depth without spelling it out in th e text or glossary a la Tolkien.

johnnypopculture said...

Thanks for commenting, saltlakeblues. Response: I make no claim to being a C.S. Lewis scholar; I've read the books and watched the movies and that's it. If Lewis made reference to seeing the Telmarines as European and/or Hispanic, fair enough. I was reacting to what I believed (still believe) are pretty clear textual signposts for seeing them as of the Muslim world. The confusion I spoke of had to do with the notion that the filmmakers would jetison one politically loaded ethnicity (Arabic Muslim) for another (Hispanic).
Your point on Tolkien is accurate; he does gloss in excrutiating and unnecessary detail. But I've always thought that Rings got away from him and developed a life of its own in a manner that Narnia doesn't; there's not a single word in the Chronicles that ever escapes Lewis's agenda.

John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions