What’s the use of a fairyland in which trees don’t dance, animals don’t talk and one’s once majestic castle has fallen into ruins? Returning to the world of Narnia, the Pevensie brothers, Peter (William Moseley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), look thoroughly petulant if not downright pissed off, in the manner of juveniles who plead with mum and dad for cash and then go all the way to Disneyland only to find that Space Mountain is closed for repairs. Awwwww.
The four Pevensie siblings are back in the second installment of “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, which is fast on the heels of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series in global box-office revenues. Notably darker and more restrained, the latest, “Prince Caspian,” picks up where the “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005) left off — the kids have tumbled back into London via the musty wardrobe in their aunt’s spare room. They’re now enduring the rigors of British school life in the 1940s — each longingly recalling the time when they fought heroic battles and were treated as royalty in the fantasy land of Narnia.
Waiting for the underground to take them to school, Edmund is resentful of the drab, grim reality that they’re powerless to change and in which they are treated “like children.” The film, though, wastes little time on his complaints — almost immediately they are sucked once more into that magical realm where they once consorted with delightful dwarflike creatures such as Mr. Tumnus and beavers with cockney accents.
But a year in Britain equals centuries in Narnia, and they soon discover that their beloved kingdom has become unrecognizable. The trees are still and foreboding, the brooks and rivers silent and the glorious creatures that inhabited the forest are nowhere to be found. And if Aslan — aka Son of God — is around, he’s sure being secretive about it. The only one who believes in Aslan and his powers is, once again, the youngest Pevensie sister, Lucy (Georgie Henley), and she pipes up when her siblings claim not to believe that she glimpsed his golden mane. “Maybe you can’t see him because you don’t want to,” she says.
This and other ventures into the realm of metaphysical query is one of the mainstays of “Narnia,” written by theologian and Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis. One of his close friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, who penned the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, reputedly, it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to convert to Christianity (he became an atheist at the age of 15) during their time in Oxford.
Lewis has written that he intended Narnia to be an instructive and philosophical journey for children rather than a vehicle for their entertainment and the story, set in war-time Britain where the threat of death and invasion was real, isn’t about escapism. The filmmakers respect this while at the same time giving it blockbuster specifications (digital technology galore, visually splendid locations in New Zealand and Prague etc). The result is a certain ambivalence that hangs over the whole picture like a cloud with an evasive silver lining. The Pevensies are in for one arduous trial after another in Narnia, undercut by the disappointment of Aslan’s absence and his wondrous magic: everything must be done with bare hands, every plan thought out with their own brains. But the backdrop sure is beautiful, the computer generated fuzzy creatures are super cute and buffed centaurians are suitably impressive. Most dispiriting of all is that no reward lies on the horizon, not even that bowl of Turkish Delight which had been so dear to Edmund in the first installment. This time they sleep on hard ground and go without food, though a spark of romance ignites between Susan (Anna Popplewell) and the handsome Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the kingdom but temporarily ousted by his evil uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). But both are aware that a relationship is unlikely — they’re in the middle of a war to free Narnia, and, besides, as Susan pointedly says to Caspian: “I’m 1,300 years older than you are.”
In the meantime, Miraz and his armies close in on their fortress with cannons (which look suspiciously similar to the ones used in “Lord of the Rings”), things start to look downright bleak and still, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) stays away. Even the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who had been so elegantly nasty in the first chronicle, puts in a brief appearance. So what’s taking this lion so long? When he finally shows up his only explanation — boomed out in a low, benign voice — is that “things never happen in the same way twice.”
In the first chronicle, the kids were younger and their enemies were within: fear, greed, the wish to escape, the temptation to betray. In the second story, the enemy is an outside evil force against which they pit their wits and summon all their strength. And at the last minute, enter the Son of God. But his too well-timed appearance comes off more like a Greek myth than a story of Christian endurance.