There are two ways one could approach a movie like Prince Caspian: as a fantasy movie or as a fantasy movie based on a beloved classic novel. I’m going to try to take both of these views into account as I review this movie, but my default position will be the latter. In this post, I’ll review the film itself and in the next, I’ll look at how it compares to the book.
My general feeling is that if a book is pretty good, with great characters and plot, then you don’t need to change things around too much in order to make a movie. Sure, the filmmakers will have to cut things out in order to make a watchable movie (the Harry Potter series), but if a book is already pretty good, then it’s not too much of a leap to expect the movie to be both similar and good. (Good books being made into bad movies is a post all on its own; see Jumper, The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or The Golden Compass.)
As a movie, Prince Caspian does fairly well. No doubt, it will be compared to Return of the King, which is a bad thing; a very, very bad thing. There is no way a movie based on a children’s book and aimed toward a family friendly audience will be able to stand up against the genius that is Peter Jackson’s LotR. The battle scenes will always be tame (even if there is a PG beheading), which is what the modern audience considers the bread and butter of a fantasy film. If you take that comparison off the table and think of Prince Caspian more in terms of other family friendly fantasy films (alliteration!), like Eragon (which I pointedly left off my good book/bad movie list), then it becomes a very good movie.
The story is somewhat tight, although the first act is rushed, seemingly to get to the action. Caspian is rushed out of the castle and into the woods before we have a feel for the world. We’re not given any reason to care for the young prince and his imminent murder. The sequence of the four Pevensies meeting the titular prince is also confusing, making me feel like something was missing, perhaps cut for time purposes.
The biggest complaint I have about the story is the absence of Aslan, who drove the previous film. I understand what the story was trying to say, that people have given up hope in Aslan. There is an important theological point there: whatever Peter does by himself, in his own power if you will, is ultimately doomed to failure. Similarly, Caspian is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, even accepting the help of the White Witch. But the writers take away anything they had stored up by not having Peter and Caspian be even remotely sorry for giving into temptation. It’s as if there are no consequences to fairly serious actions. When Aslan finally shows up he really doesn’t do anything except act as a deus ex machina, which I suppose you could say he literally is.
The characters are better developed than the previous movie, but they still lack something. It’s obvious Peter is struggling since his return to our world, but we don’t really feel this; he seems more like the teenaged Anakin Skywalker, a comparison you never want to make. Caspian is good, which kind of works against the movie. He actually looks and acts like a prince and has a good amount of charisma on the screen, dwarfing Peter by comparison.
That said, the actors are good. Although I’ll contradict myself later, Eddie Izzard is great as Reepicheep and Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin is excellent. The Pevensies have become better actors and Ben Barnes’ Caspian is good. The one misstep in casting is the criminal misuse of Pierfrancesco Favino (Glozelle) and Sergio Castellitto (Miraz), who are underused.
The filmmaking is better than the first installment, adding many layers to what could have been a one-dimensional film. If The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a flat, clean, soulless movie, then Prince Caspian is a dirty, real, three-dimensional story. Narnia feels real, not just a magical world, but a real land with real people living real lives. You feel the history of the past 1,000 years, knowing that countless people have lived and died waiting for Aslan to return. This is something the first movie largely fails to accomplish.
As a whole, Prince Caspian, being what it is, is a pretty good movie. If I had to rate it, it would be in the B/B+ range. It’s not the best fantasy movie ever, nor is it the worst; it stands well above the films listed above and does well in comparison to the later Harry Potter films. It is well worth spending $8 to see it in the theater, which is perhaps the highest praise I could give a movie. (And remember, this is without taking the book into account.)