How The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian began the end of a big-screen fantasy era
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: a profound debate about Speed Racer. Next week: Indiana Jones and the refrigerator. This week: The fantasy franchise that wasn’t Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.
Before it was a middling film franchise, The Chronicles of Narnia was a beloved fantasy saga. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis crafted an enticing fairy tale. And then he wrote six more books, increasingly strange, aggressively anti-narrative, death-crazy.
Lewis was a Christian, so every schoolkid plays the game where you use that biographical detail to decode the Chronicles. Witness the Narnian Deep State: resurrected Aslan as resurrected Jesus, Turkish Delight-shilling White Witch as apple-baiting Snake in the Garden, I guess the badgers are the Thessalonians, was King Arthur in the Bible and did he ever time travel?
Fun to discuss, if you have a gift for extrapolation, or you just wish Sunday Mass had more lions. Decades before “problematic” became millennials’ favorite critical adjective, the hippest preteen literati knew The Horse and His Boy was cuspingly racist crap, the most Crusades-y entry in a series that wait now hmmm actually is all about heroic foreigners reigning over the adoring natives of a Holy Land. It’s fun to read Narnia as a kid, fun to overthink Narnia as an adult. Fantasy authors like Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and Lev Grossman have crafted studied responses to Lewis’ failings, essay and parody and aggressive deconstruction.
But the religious angle overlooks one of the most interesting things about Lewis’ saga. The man had a willingness to toss out audience expectation, skip centuries in Narnian time, build memorable heroes one book and dispose of them the next.
This makes Lewis’ Chronicles brazenly inappropriate for the requirements of contemporary film franchising. Serialized big-screen narratives need long-term quests, continuous villainy, familiar hero-faces growing older with the audience. Ten years ago on Wednesday, Prince Caspian opened in theaters, offering none of that. A sequel to 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it cost more than its predecessor and made quite a bit less. Back then, still a new kind of idea: The $400 million disappointment. Box office historians could record this as fantasy fatigue. Moviegoers were more discerning, had already suffered through big-screen defenestrations of The Golden Compass and Eragon. Popular fantasy was trending away from battlefield operatics. (On the horizon: Sexy vampires, Sean Bean’s staked head, the most monochromatic Harry Potter movies.)
But it couldn’t help that Prince Caspian begins with a bummer revelation: Anyone lovable from the first movie has been dead for over a thousand years. “Everyone we knew,” says Lucy (Georgie Henley), “Mr. Tumnus and the Beavers…they’re all gone.” Heavy business for a PG blockbuster, practically Alien 3-ish: Goat-eared James McAvoy and fuzzy Ray Winstone are dead, kids! The most important characters from the first film are largely absent. In a feat of imaginative adaptation, Tilda Swinton’s White Witch appears for a cameo. Liam Neeson’s Aslan doesn’t do anything for two hours and then arrives to save everyone who believes in him, just like Stalin in the old Soviet propaganda (or, technically, half the stories about God).
Given care and attention, this could’ve been quite something: Its generation’s Return to Oz, maybe, or an early onslaught of downbeat Logan-ish melancholy. Prince Caspian can’t take its boldest ideas seriously, though. It treats the source material as a problem to be fixed, edges sanded toward standard mainstream fantasy fare. And what was “mainstream fantasy,” circa 2008? Here is a film that climaxes with an hourlong battle scene, but can hardly show any blood. The main male characters regularly prove their heroism via swordplay. Chief kid Peter (proto-bae William Moseley) has a very long duel with the main villain, a showdown with two intermissions. Susan (Anna Popplewell) uses her bow and arrow with the X-Games martial artistry pioneered by Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. In the most exciting action moment of Prince Caspian, she stabs one guy with an arrow and then throws that same arrow at another guy.
But the violence lacks weight, buried behind MPAA-friendly cutaways. You have the cumulative feeling that all these instruments of death are being used to tickle the bad guys. In that big sword duel, Peter wins when he stabs bad guy Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Director Andrew Adamson came from animation, has a remarkable indifference to the kinetics of human movement. So he doesn’t hide the fact that this climactic blow — the end of a 10-hour fight, by my dozing watch — is clearly a sword being slipped carefully between an actors’ stomach and his breastplate. Castellitto’s right hand seems to be holding the sword in place: You think of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, shaking the legs of a giant non-functional octopus:
Prince Caspian is a violent fantasy with no real care for violence or fantasy. The book was published in 1951, but the film bears all the traces of 2000s fantasy bloat. The good guys are cute British kids, or digital creatures whose mission in life is to support cute British kids. (“Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King,” says the latest talking badger, patiently waiting for some visiting Brit to take over again.) The bad guys are Otherized fascists, Spaniards modeling outfits that variously resemble conquistadors, samurai, and the masked freak-warriors from 300. In the middle: Ben Barnes exploring a few Mediterranean accents as the titular Caspian.
Adamson also directed the first film, which defaulted to bland but colorful vaudeville, green forests and blue-white ice and Lionheart-chic battle robes. Prince Caspian is the proverbial “dark sequel” writ goofy. The bad guys wear black, grrrr. The good guys are sad until finally they aren’t anymore.
Three elements of Prince Caspian look notable from our 2018 perch. First, amidst forgotten Star of Tomorrow faces and talking animals with hair that still looks pixelated: Peter Dinklage plays a “red dwarf” named Trumpkin. He’s introduced mid-prologue, waving a sword at a squad of bad guys. He’s the film’s resident badass with a heart of gold, slowly warming to the shenanigans of his youth-group pals. To Dinklage’s credit, he never looks happy to be here. Three years pre-Game of Thrones, you have the feeling of dangerous energy only barely tapped.
Nowadays, Barnes is the next-most-familiar face. He’s recently made a fine cottage industry as TV’s dissolvingly nefarious bad boy on Westworld and The Punisher. A sign of the times, I think, that the onetime Caspian (and brief Seventh Son) found his groove emanating smirkish predatory hostility. Ten years later, shame and reckoning have left us with a different kind of Hollywood. I don’t think we’ll see another blockbuster movie anytime soon about two dudes fighting about who makes the better King. But that’s one big new idea added to the movie: Peter thinks he’s right, Caspian’s thinks he’s right, and Susan gets to do cool stuff with arrows between eyelash-duels with Caspian.
Of course, the biggest names on Prince Caspian are off-screen. Adamson cowrote the screenplay with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. In this decade, M&M became key steersman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They wrote Civil War and Infinity War. In one movie, Iron Man and Captain America fight about who makes the better superhero. In the next movie, Iron Man and Dr. Strange fight about who makes the better superhero. Times change, never as much as they should.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: Get Smart, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and The Love Guru
June 27: Wall-E and Wanted
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
August 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
August 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
August 13: Tropic Thunder
August 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
August 22: The House Bunny
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian