Sunday morning, at the Prince Caspian screening
in the West End. There's a queue, winding from the cinema lobby, out into Leicester Square and down the road, 350-400 strong at least. At 10 o'clock in the morning. What the hell? I guess it's easy to forget that to some, this is just a sequel - another production line fantasy epic - but others have been waiting their whole lives to see this book on the big screen. Not being a fan of the CS Lewis canon, I can't comment on whether it does Narnia literature justice, but as a film fan, I can whole-heartedly recommend it as an example of fantasy done right.
The first Narnia movie was a huge success but made an uneasy transition from page to screen. Slavishly adapted, it stuck to Lewis' prose like gum, meaning it came complete with queasy Biblical metaphors, acres of exposition and strangely toothless battle scenes (the less said about the arms-dealing Santa Claus the better). Director Adamson must have learned from his previous mistakes, because Prince Caspian is everything a sequel should be: bigger, badder and better.
The movie opens with the star of the show, the newly dethroned Caspian (Barnes) fleeing from his castle after his wicked uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) orders him dead. A quick horse ride later, and he's up to his arse in furry creatures, now banished to the woods and dismissed as myth by the Telmarines that now inhabit Narnia. He calls for help, and like magic, the Pevensie children are once again summoned to their old playground - via a nice special effect or two - where they find their old digs have gone to hell in a hand-basket in the 1,300 years since they left. Tsk. Littlejohn would be appalled.
As is de rigeur
for the modern sequel, this is the 'darker' second instalment - a kind of thank-you to the grown-ups who sat through the twee nonsense of the first adventure. Prince Caspian is darker both literally and spiritually - much of the movie takes place at night (which can tend to cause visibility problems in the fog of war) but there's an edge here that was sorely lacking from the last movie. There's still not a drop of blood spilled, but action scenes throb with genuine menace and the land of Narnia doesn't seems quite as frilly as it used to. Characters are killed; stabbings are commonplace; in one instance, a bloke gets his head cut off. PG sure ain't what it used to be. (Empire nail the issue far better than I ever could here
- isn't this kind of film the reason the 12A rating was invented?)
Despite a noticeable lack of claret, the mechanics of battle are far more advanced than they were first time around. Catapults pound the opposition front lines; the ground crumbles beneath the warriors' feet; a cornucopia of creatures wage war on one another, all set to Harry Gregson-Williams' stirring score. And Prince Caspian doesn't just pull off large-scale action - one pivotal mano-a-mano swordfight is pleasantly weighty, with Adamson's camera getting in amongst the bruising blows, in the thick of the action. On the whole, Caspian makes The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe look like a playground push fight in comparison.
But while the action scenes are cutting edge, the acting is still very much Sunday afternoon TV stuff. The four Pevensie children all still seem daunted by such a huge production, delivering stilted lines and tripping over the clunkier, expositional dialogue. Skandar Keynes and Anna Popplewell are blessed with rather thankless roles, while William Mosely doesn't convince as High King, his unfortunate habit of over-pronouncing his 'S's rather undermining his manlier qualities. Of the four, only little Georgie Henley impresses, although that's likely due to her young age and cute-as-a-button smile. Barnes as Caspian isn't given much to work with but earns extra points for his Inigo Montoya-style accent. Alas, like the Harry Potter series, bad acting comes with the territory - you make your peace with it and move on.
What we have in Prince Caspian is basically a Lord Of The Rings clone that delivers. The opening horse chase is a direct rip from Fellowship; the midnight castle raid channels a definite Helm's Deep vibe; the final, field-based battle is arguably the equal of Minas Tirith. Production design is second-to-none, and Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero do a fine job of creating the various creatures that populate Narnia - the Asterius wolf is bound to be the cause of a few pre-teen nightmares. It finally feels like a fully-formed world, rather than just a few nice New Zealand locations rammed with some extras wearing Minotaur heads. After comparatively woeful fantasy efforts like Eragon
, The Golden Compass
and In The Name Of The King (sit down Uwe Boll), it's nice to see someone do a good job of piggy-backing Peter Jackson for once.
Anyone sick to the back teeth of Griffons and their ilk won't find much new here, and with a running time of 147 minutes, there will be plenty of swollen bladders and stroppy toddlers in cinemas up and down the country. But anyone willing to entertain a fantasy that actually lives up to the tag 'epic' should give Prince Caspian some serious thought. Don't let the PG rating or the endless queues of expectant children fool you; this isn't necessarily just for kids. Ali