'Prince Caspian': Sugarpuff Christian Propaganda Dressed Up As a Dark Children's Movie

The second film in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, Prince Caspian, is so big, so long, so slow, so stilted, so cheesy, so pumped full of phony-looking CGI that there's nothing to stop it from making a billion dollars. Because, God help us, this is the gelatinous form the fantasy genre has taken in the past few decades and now everyone has learned to love it, the way we learned to love Spam and Jello and many other products that hold a pre-molded shape for mysterious reasons we don't want to go into.

You'll read other reviews claiming that, compared to the first film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), this one is dark and maybe even disturbing for the hordes of kids worldwide who will flock to see it. Don't you believe it. This film is dark the way pearl grey would seem dark if you lived in the Land of Blinding Whiteness. Prince Caspian earns its PG rating through bloodless war, reversible deaths, tiresome moral preachiness, and the cutest, blandest kid heroes ever assembled.

These kids are the four Pevensie siblings of C.S. Lewis' famous children's classics, London youngsters who periodically slip off to the magical world of Narnia to lead epic lives. Here's how you tell them apart: Peter (William Moseley) is now in his sullen teen years and scowls all the time; Susan (Anna Popplewell) shoots a mean arrow and has the poutiest red lips of the four, which is saying a lot; Edmund (Scandar Keynes) has the most upstanding hair; and Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the small, pious girl forever reminding the others to worship the giant holy lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) that nobody can see but her since he was martyred in the last war.

At the end of the first film, the kids had been crowned young kings and queens in honor of their leadership in defeating the forces of the magnificently evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton). As the sequel begins, they are one year older and very bored when they're transported back again to Narnia via the enchanted London tube (also Harry Potter's main mode of travel to the world of magic). However, in Narnia it's centuries later, and the castle in which the children were crowned is now an ancient ruin. The Narnians, a motley assortment of dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, gryphons, talking animals, feisty trees, et.al., have been driven into hiding by the cruel tyranny of the Telmarines, led by the usurper King Miraz, played by Sergio Castellitto. (The wicked Telmarines are clearly Spaniards, by the way, probably for reasons having to do with C.S. Lewis' willingness to hold a permanent grudge against all former foes of dear old England) The Narnians, reunited with the Pevensie children, pin their hopes on the rightful heir to the throne, young Telmarine Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) to unite and restore the kingdom.

It's all very plotty and ponderous. Director Andrew Adamson (the Shrek franchise) isn't exactly the surest hand in the West when it comes to mobilizing the troops for exciting action sequences. Luckily horses galloping are always beautiful to watch, and that helps the dragging pace of the battles a bit. But the entrancing White Witch who did so much to enliven the first film is sorely missed here. Tilda Swinton as the Witch makes only a brief appearance in Caspian, but she really knows how to goose up the stodgy proceedings of contemporary fantasy. With her odd-angled Renaissance-era face, her cold grandeur, her convincing battle-readiness and barbaric furs and sledge pulled by wolves, she was the perfect antidote to all the glutinous scenes with children learning to have unquestioning faith in a giant supremely-fake-looking lion. I spent the whole first film rooting for her.

There are a few other actors struggling valiantly to breathe life into the proceedings, including Peter Dinklage as the grumpy dwarf Trumpkin. But just the fact that he is a grumpy dwarf shows you how hopelessly recycled all this fantasy material has gotten. In this genre by now, all dwarfs are grumpy, and all characters spend huge amounts of time staring off into space with awed expressions that are cut together with CGI effects meant to represent the things that awe them. All fantasy scores sound like John Williams on his most bathetic day, heavy on the triumphal horns and the celestial choir voices. Fantasy lands must now look like New Zealand. Fantasy talking animals must be voiced by stars like Eddie Izzard as the swordfighting mouse Reepicheep, who's a less amusing version of the swordfighting cat Puss-in-boots voiced by Antonio Banderas in Shrek II.

Some reviewers will also try to tell you that this film's Christian allegorical elements are very much downplayed. That's not true either. Sorry, there's no getting around the elephant in the living room, or in this case, the martyred-then-resurrected lion in the forest who is forever rebuking Ye of Little Faith. But it's a proud tradition of denial going all the way back to C.S. Lewis himself, who not only denied that he meant to write a Christian allegory, he denied that his Chronicles work as an allegory in any way at all, based on a technical definition of the word "allegory" that wouldn't interest anyone but a demented English major.

Angst about the Christian-allegoryness of the Chronicles has continued to the present day, right up through the announcement that Disney Pictures and Walden Media would partner to make big-budget film versions of the series, placing the project squarely in the middle of the US culture wars. Evangelical Christians rejoiced that the books they've embraced precisely for their allegorical properties would be shepherded to the screen by Walden Media, the "family friendly" production company owned by conservative Christian billionaire media-magnate Philip Anshutz. Online journal Media Transparency: The Money Behind Conservative Media ran an expose charging that the first film "surely will advance Anshutz's conservative Christian agenda." Christians sought reassurance that the aspects they loved best about the books wouldn't be watered-down for the secular humanist crowd, as evidenced by this October 4, 2005 exchange between Mark Moring of Christianity Today/Movies.com and interviewee Micheal Flaherty, President of Walden Media:

Q: Probably the biggest concern for Christians is that Aslan isn't dumbed down to just an awe-inspiring lion, but that he remains an apparent Christ figure.
Flaherty: I think that's evident to some people in the book, and it's not evident to others. If it's evident to you in the book, it's going to be evident to you in the film. I think that's the officially sanctioned diplomatic answer! [Laughs]
There's no question, however, that Walden Media claims a big commitment to faithfully adapting the books they option (Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie), whatever that might mean to the final product. They're putting fidelity to C.S Lewis' Chronicles at the center of the film experience. Legions of fans love the books and will turn out to love the films as well. Naysayers who aren't such fans will sit off to the side grousing to ourselves. The ultimate naysayer may be anti-Narnian Philip Pullman, who wrote the trilogy His Dark Materials and offered the following devastating critique of C.S. Lewis' worldview:

[For Lewis], death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-colored people are better than dark-colored people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.
Heads up, beleaguered naysayers! A Disney/Walden Media versions of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters is coming to a theater near you, and there are still lots more Narnian adventures in the pipeline.

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