As I wrote in my review of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," most people know that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were college chums, and that both men were fascinated by mythology and the Bible. As members of the same writers' club at Oxford they also critiqued each other's work, and Lewis encouraged his friend to publish "The Hobbit" (1937), which he had written for his children. Thirteen years later Lewis himself would write a kinder and gentler fantasy for children, but as far as young ones were concerned it was worth the wait. Lewis's tales were instantly more popular with children because they involved real children who stepped through a portal into another dimension, an alternate world that had talking animals, centaurs, minotaurs, and the kinds of good versus evil struggles that engulfed Tolkien's Middle Kingdom.
After he finished his film adaptation of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," director Andrew Adamson says he wanted nothing to do with another movie that had children in it (and all those regulations!), animals, and CGI action. But, he says on one of the bonus features, he couldn't bear the thought of "shipping these children off to another director."
The four children who star--William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley--felt as attached to Adamson, as well. He apparently created a set that led to all sorts of friendships and camaraderie, which he thinks is important when you're making a film. It certainly was with this one, which was shot in a number of different international locations (including New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia) under difficult circumstances. There's plenty of footage of the actors in full get-up sitting around, waiting for the sun to come out, walking in the rain, or pulling ticks off of each other--a nightly ritual.
In the first installment, the adventure began when London was bombed during WWII and (shades of "Lemony Snicket") the children were sent to live with a professor at his country house, as real children did with Professor Lewis. There, in a spare room, they enter a mysterious wardrobe and pass through its contents of coats and cloaks into the snowy world of Narnia, which has been in constant winter since the evil White Witch (played with understated relish by Tilda Swinton) had been in power. There, they meet a lion named Aslan (Liam Neeson) who, like Christ, is betrayed and willingly submits himself to ridicule and death, only to rise again. The children are asked to believe in him, and the film ended with Peter (Moseley), Susan (Popplewell), Edmund (Keynes), and Lucy (Henley) leading the Narnians against the forces of evil and being elevated as kings and queens, essentially growing up and growing older in Narnia until one day they felt they had to return.
This time around, the danger has passed and the Underground is full of children who are catching trains to return to their families. But shades of "Harry Potter," just as the children are wondering aloud when Aslan will summon them back, a portal opens in the Underground and they pass into the world of Narnia again, which is unrecognizable to them because of all the changes. Then again, it's been roughly 1300 years, Narnian time, since the children ruled, and legend has it that by blowing a horn the "old kings and queens of Narnia" could be summoned to help them reclaim their land. You see, the Narnians have been driven so far underground that many of the "children of Adam" who now prevail over the land had thought them extinct. We're introduced to Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), a 20-something lad whom we learn is the son of the real king who is missing and presumed dead. In power is his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who has usurped the throne. And on the day that his queen gives birth to a son, he sends soldiers to fill Caspian's bed full of crossbow arrows. But Dr. Cornelius (Vincent Grass) has aided the Prince's escape, and has given him the horn to blow in case of emergency.
Naturally, the four Pevensie children are a little younger than the Prince expected, because when they returned to London they realized that only a short while had passed in Earth time, and they seem younger still as their confusion makes them seem a bit slow-witted. So what happened to Narnia and the Narnians? Prince Caspian discovers several Narnians (or vice versa), and soon he's recruiting them for an army so that he can reclaim his kingdom. And the four kings and queens of old do the same, this time with help from a dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage). Meanwhile, the youngest Pevensie keeps thinking she's seeing Aslan, and wants the rest to follow.
The plotting isn't exactly plodding, but there just aren't as many elements to create and sustain tension this second installment, and the children being older have lost a little of their freshness and charm. Or maybe it's just that the script didn't allow for the same level of sibling rivalry and meaningful character interaction as the first. The emphasis is instead on political intrigue and a succession of battles, including a leader-against-leader fight that will remind moviegoers of "Troy." Trumpkin, for example, doesn't have the same level of emotional engagement with the children as the beloved satyr, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), whom they first met when they entered this strange world. And as a villain, the bearded Miraz looks and snarls just like any other scruffy medieval-looking bad guy--far removed from the icy personality of the White Witch. The closest we get to personality comes from a swashbuckling mouse who provides the same measure of comic relief as Puss in Boots from "Shrek 2."
But the landscape and set design this time around is more dramatic and Middle Kingdom-like, rather than the Peaceable Kingdom idyllic setting of the first film. As a result, it doesn't seem quite as magical. What's astounding, though, is to see in one of the main bonus features how Adamson and his crew used original illustrations from the books and tried to match them. What you think is CGI is often a real setting, and there's plenty of behind-the-scenes footage to prove it. Like the Sandman in "Spider-Man," the river god that's summoned at one point looks wonderful in 1080p, with all the mythic charm of the old Ray Harryhausen creatures brought into the 21st century with astounding clarity and texture. So while something is lost in the second installment, something is also gained, and "Prince Caspian" is a solid entry in the series. Parents probably ought to know that while the film earned a PG rating for "epic battle action and violence," and while we don't really see blades make contact all that often (there's usually a quick cut-away or blur), there are numerous implied killings and at least one implied beheading.
And boy, does that implied beheading look great in 1080p (just kidding). Actually, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one, with no artifacts on the feature (just, strangely enough, on one of the HD extras). This film would have been killed with an overprocessed look, but that's thankfully not the case here. There's just the slightest hint of grain and an equally slight softness that makes everything look believable as an alternate world. The level of detail is particularly good, with no DNR, just strongly delineated edges to begin with. "Prince Caspian" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Disney and Walden Media deliver an extremely lively and robust 7.1 channel English DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit), with great (and more importantly, logical) distribution of sound that never draws attention to itself. And yet, at some point when you realize the clarity and pure tones of every clash of sword and zip of crossbow arrows--even footsteps on stone castle floors--you think to yourself, wow. It's one of the better soundtracks I've listened to lately. Additional audio options are French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese.
First, while digital copies have hitherto been included at no extra charge (if you believe that), Disney has taken into account that not everyone might want a digital copy, and if you fall into that category you can pick up the 2-disc version and save yourself roughly five dollars.
On Disc 1 there's the commentary track and a "Circle-Vision Interactive: Creating the Castle feature."
On the commentary track, it's clear that Adamson allows his actors plenty of freedom to express themselves, because his five young stars who join him here interject with all sorts of remarks. There's a lively give-and-take, lots of laughs, some overlapping dialogue that's sometimes tough to decipher, but plenty of behind-the-scenes insights and anecdotes. It's a fun commentary track, in other words, with Adamson's wry humor a constant throughout (as when he deadpans at the outset, "Any good family movie should start with a birthing scene").
The Circle-Vision sounds like a Profile 1.1 feature, but it's not. Basically director Adamson introduces this feature, which is a 360-degree shot of the castle that was built over five weeks by 200 craftsmen, and on each segment there are circles to click on to access specific bonus features. There are 13 audio commentaries in all, and ten scenes to click on to access more information about the process. There's almost an hour of material here, much of it detail-oriented, but most of it fascinating.
Disc two features a three minute-blooper reel if you're into such things, a five-minute short on how long it takes Peter Dinklage to become Trumpkin (with a little yak hair added here and there), a seven-minute "Secrets of the Duel" that explains the choreography for the key battle, a five-minute snippet on animating the animals and trees, a 10-minute pre-visualization extra, an 11-minute short on how Warwick Davis becomes the dwarf Nikabrik, and 11 minutes (10, in all) of deleted scenes that aren't missed. These are fine little featurettes, but teasers, really, because of their length.
More substantial is the longest feature, "Inside Narnia: The Adventure Returns" (34 min.), which is most astounding because of all the footage not just of behind-the-scenes filming but of down time that the actors all had to go through. It's here where we get the basic story behind the movie, and how reluctant at first Adamson was to do the sequel. It deteriorates, though, into a bit of a tribute to the director near the end. In "Sets of Narnia: A Classic Comes to Life" (23 min.) we get the full story on Lewis and see pages from the original book compared to natural settings that Adamson and his crew actually found to match. Readings from the text are juxtaposed against narratives about how the filmmakers tried to recapture as faithfully as possible all of the settings that Lewis described. It's possibly my favorite of the bunch. About the same length is "Big Movie Comes to a Small Town," which feels like an extension of the previous feature because it's about a specific location--the town of Bovec, Slovenia, on the River Soca. On this small town over 1000 cast and crew descended, and since there weren't enough places for them to stay, many stayed with families in private homes. It's a great feature on the impact that a film can have on a community.
Adamson and his crew cranked it up a notch when it came to CGI and set construction, even building a castle from scratch. But character development takes a back seat this trip, and because the focus is on politics and the reclaiming of a kingdom, with inevitable battles driving much of the action, it doesn't have the same charm or magic as "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." "Prince Caspian" is still solid family entertainment, though, and just as Lewis's books were better received by children, this film series is certainly more kid-friendly than the Peter Jackson's version of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.