Forgive me, Aslan, but I wasn't exactly praying for a return to Narnia, that land of beastly enchantment. Nevertheless, here we go again, thanks to The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. To say that this second installment in the global franchise seems quite a bit like the first would be to defy Aslan himself, who tells little Lucy, near the end of the movie, that "things never happen the same way twice." Well, you could have fooled me. Prince Caspian is perhaps a little darker than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which never quite lost the initial charm of having discovered an entire world in someone's clothes closet. But its basic outline is much the same: British youngsters save the day, with a little help from the man excuse me, the lion - upstairs. Oh, there are some new critters, including a mouse who owes too much to Shrek's Puss in Boots. Otherwise, the more things change...
...the more they wring changes on what we've already seen. When the movie opens, the Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - are back in war-torn London, missing Narnia but without a clue how to get there. Then the walls of the subway start to crack and crumble, a moment that director Andrew Adamson is unable to infuse with magic. Lo and behold, there's Narnia, but not the Narnia the children remember. During the year they've been away, Narnia has aged over a thousand years, descending into darkness. Now, the Telmarines, who seem like Spaniards circa 1450, run things. And the Narnians, that weird menagerie of lions, tigers and bears, beavers and badgers, dryads and nymphs, centaurs and minotaurs, dwarves and dragons, have holed up in the forest, awaiting the Second Coming.
If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was about death and resurrection, Prince Caspian is about faith and salvation. Only Lucy, the youngest, has held on to her belief in Aslan, who rewards her with some he-is-arisen sightings. The other children are ready to fend for themselves, and the first part of the movie consists of them putting together the fellowship of the ring. Did I say that? I meant they unite the Narnians in the war against the Telmarines, led by the evil King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). As in Hamlet, not to mention The Lion King, King Miraz ascended to the throne by murdering the person already sitting in it. And he'd like to take out Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), a Johnny Depp-ish heartthrob who escapes and joins the Narnians, setting up a rivalry between him and Peter and a budding romance between him and Susan, who's become a dead ringer for Chelsea Clinton.
As before, none of the children leave much of an impression this time. Neither do Prince Caspian or King Miraz, although the latter does everything but twirl his mustache à la Snidely Whiplash. What keeps the movie afloat are the settings, many of them found in New Zealand, where Peter Jackson staked his territory, and the stabs at comic relief, which are like drinks of water to a man crawling across the desert. Peter Dinklage gets off some decent lines as a taciturn dwarf. And I already mentioned Reepicheep, the mouse that roared. Eddie Izzard did the voice work for Reepicheep, trying and failing to erase Antonio Banderas' voice from our minds. But as the Narnians and Telmarines gird their loins for battle, we'll take whatever humor we can get our hands on, no matter how derivative. Like its predecessor, Prince Caspian is basically a war epic. When it's not engaging in battle, it's preparing for the next one.
C.S. Lewis, the brains behind all this brawn, was a proponent of so-called muscular Christianity, the idea that spiritual and physical development should go hand in hand. We were all to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and maybe that explains why The Chronicles of Narnia, though presided over by a Christ-like figure, is so militaristic (and why the Christ-like figure is a lion, not a lamb). Aslan keeps his distance through most of Prince Caspian, but when he does show up, he seems closer to the Old Testament Jehovah than to the New Testament Christ, smiting the Narnians' enemies in ways that haven't been resorted to since the days of Noah. The problem isn't that he gets pre-medieval on their asses, though. The problem is that, being all-powerful, he never gives the other side a chance. And he just keeps coming. By my count, this is the Second Coming. Can the third be far behind?