The Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian

As a supposed family film, “Prince Caspian” might be a tad too long and a wee bit violent for the youngest of tykes. For most, however, the film stands a good chance of becoming the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Narnia” series: a darker and more satisfying follow-up to an already exceptional starting point, one that will be hard to top with future installments.

When we last saw the four Pevensie siblings, they had returned through their magical wardrobe, back to their otherwise drab British home. One year later, they are back in school in London, which is in the grips of World War II, having some difficulty dealing with the real world. And if there is one major complaint about the new film from this writer, it is that director Andrew Adamson and his co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also collaborated on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) are too quick to get Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy back to Narnia. Not that they can be blamed. This isn’t the Chronicles of London. Narnia is where the action is, and with the film already clocking in at a cool two hours and twenty minutes, “Caspian” will already have many squirming in their seats. However, the film could have used a little more than an awkward flirtation between Susan and a young potential suitor, and one scene featuring Peter and Edmund in a row with a couple bullies, to add extra emphasis to the longing one-time Kings and Queens of Narnia may have for their majestic alternate homeland. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Narnia book, so I remember not whether C.S. Lewis himself spent any time with the Pevensie children back in London before whoosing them back to Narnia.

But before the Pevensies get back to Narnia, we get to return from the opening credits, as we get the setup that will drive the story. Telmarine Prince Caspian X (about to be major heartthrob Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the throne after the death of his father King Caspian IX in his youth, is awakened in the middle of the night by his mentor Doctor Cornelius. Caspian’s aunt Prunaprismia has just given birth to a son, which puts Caspian’s life in immediate danger, as Caspain’s uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto, equal parts deliciously evil and cowardly) has maintained rule over Narnia until Caspian was old enough. Miraz, now with his own male child, would become the sole heir to the throne should Caspian perish and have his son be his successor. Caspian and Cornelius hide in a secret passage in a wardrobe as Miraz’s soldiers charge into the room and fire arrows right at his bed. Caspian escapes into the Narnian forest, with the soldiers (fearful at first of the tall tales told about the creatures who live in the forest, before realizing the real horror which awaits them should they return without the body of Prince Caspian) hot in his heels. Caspian is able to lose the soldiers, but finds himself in unknown peril when he stops in front of the home of Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) and Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), two Narnian dwarves, blowing on a mystical horn given to him by Cornelius and instructed only to use in great need.

It is this horn which brings the Pevensie children back to Narnia, although they are uncertain of where they are at first, not remembering Narnia ever having ruins. (Never mind the difference in time passage between our world and Narnia being well documented in “Lion.”) Eventually, they figure out where they are and locate their secret treasure chamber in Cair Paravel, so they can gear up and figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, Caspain, who is being held captive by Nikabrik and a talking badger named Trufflehunter, learns about a Narnian prophecy about he who blows the horn of Queen Susan leading the Narnians (who were forced to hide in the woods when the Telmarines invaded their lands many years before) to their freedom. Eventually, the Pevensies and Prince Caspian catch up with each other, and form an initially uneasy partnership to defeat Miraz, who is using Prince Caspian’s escape into the woods (which he is calling an abduction to those not in the know, being most everyone but his most trusted advisors) as an excuse to tear down the Narnian woods once and for all and exterminate everything that lives there.

Between the White Witch battle in “Lion” and the various battles in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, any battle sequence in “Caspain” would have to work extremely hard to equal these precedent-setting sequences. The big battle between Miraz’s troops and the easily out-numbered by tenfold Narnians, including a impressive sword duel between Peter and Miraz, has the right amount of magnificent special effects and surprises to keep audiences enthralled through to the very end.

If you are a fan of the “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” you’re already aware of William Moseley (Peter), Anna Popplewell (Susan), Skandar Keynes (Edmund) and Georgie Henley (Lucy), whose strong performances greatly elevated that film from merely being a cash-in on the fantasy craze brought forth by Peter Jackson. In “Caspian,” the four are equally exceptional, yet their work will be upstaged by Ben Barnes, whose will have hearts aflutter from Auckland to Nottingham and all points in between. He might be the weakest link in the film from an acting standpoint (what is that accent supposed to be anywayr), but this should solidify him as a Leonardo DiCaprio-during-Titanic-style Teen Beat monthly cover boy of the decade. “Caspian” also shows how great of an actor Peter Dinklage is. Even behind piles of makeup, Dinklage’s ever-expressive eyes and deep, rich baritone voice keep you entranced every time he is on screen.

Technically, “Prince Caspian” is amongst the best looking and sounding films you’re likely to experience all year, as any film with a one hundred million dollar plus budget better. Karl Walter Lindenlaub, the German cinematographer who made the early films of Roland Emmerich look better than they ever deserved to be, finally stops wasting a decade on middling pabulum like “The Banger Sisters” and “Because of Winn-Dixie” and exceeds his career-defining work on “Stargate” and “Independence Day.” Isis Mussenden’s costumes, the makeup effects of KNB EFX and even the lush score from the usually insipid Harry Gregson-Williams, make certain future viewings, whether it be in theatres or on video, should be as exhilarating as the first.

Along with “Iron Man,” “Prince Caspian” is making the early part of the Summer 2008 session one of the better in many years.

Rating: A-