It’s not a timetable; it’s victory. It’s victory, which I have always predicted. I didn’t know when we were going to win World War II; I just knew we were going to win.
— John McCain’s “2013 Speech,” 15 May 2008
It only takes a few moments before the Pevensie kids are whisked off to Narnia in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. This time around, they don’t have to figure out the wardrobe; instead, they merely show up, kids in school uniforms waiting for the train. They’ve been biding time in WWII’s London following their last visit to the kingdom, in 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Understandably, they’ve missed Narnia, where they lived in a castle and were treated like royalty. “It’s been a year,” whines Edmund (Skandar Keynes), by way of explaining his scuffle with classmates. “How long does he expect us to wait?”
Make that He. For the one who has them waiting is, of course, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the God stand-in throughout the chronicles who repeatedly tests his young believers. Aslan has a habit of obscuring his demands, in part by his appearance as an English-speaking lion and in part by his tendency to be absent when the children think they need him most. Per his custom, Aslan this time keeps out of the picture until late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, beginning with a loudly whooshing train. “It feels like magic!” beams Lucy (Georgie Henley), youngest Pevensie and so, open to the mishmash of mature faith and childlike wonderment that grants access to this series’ version of Christianity. As the station walls break apart and other passengers fall away, a blinding bright light at the end of the tunnel signals the children’s passage from blitzed London to the realm where they might again be exalted as sons and daughters of Adam by fuzzy woodland creatures.
As much as Edmund and Lucy are eager to make the transition, neither they nor older siblings Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) can know the drastic changes that have beset the kingdom since their last visit, now 1300 years ago. You do know a bit, however, as you’ve seen an introductory sequence in which the Telmarine King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) has become father to a baby boy, and so has decided to kill his nephew Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). After barely escaping from a barrage of weapons aimed at his bed, the Prince gallops away from the dark castle, pursued by the king’s warriors, including the snidely General Glozelle (Pierfrancesco Favino) and ambitious Lord Sopespian (Damián Alcázar). Perpetually fearful for their lives while employed by the very bad Miraz, they remain locked into their own unredeemable worldviews, indicated by their devilish beards and grotesque helmets. Dispatched first to assassinate Caspian and then hunt him down along with his new friends the Narnians, these vicious minions don’t appear to think twice, but only serve as eventual combat foes for the heroic Pevensies.
As before, the children must wend their way to the appointed battleground, learn to trust and support one another, and restore order to a corrupted monarchy (the barely noted back-story involves especially nasty betrayals). They find that the kingdom over which they once ruled has been not only destroyed but also relegated to the status of myth, the Telmarines claiming dominion over history and imagination. Also as before, they help the underdogs to rally, make a costly mistake or two, and eventually benefit from miraculous help from the suddenly visible Aslan. And again, he appears first to Lucy, offering her this apparently unironic counsel — “Things never happen the same way twice, dear one” — even as things are happening pretty much as they happened in the first movie.
Repetition is to be expected in a franchise with an audience to please. Disappointingly, however, Prince Caspian, achieves its much-discussed turn to “darkness” (compared to the first film) by laying out more plainly nationalistic and ethnic divisions. While this is also not original (see: The Lord of the Rings‘ Orientalism), the swarthing of the Euro-accented Telmarines next to the pale-faced Pevensies is particularly heavy-handed. Not to mention the British-sounding Narnians, ranging from the mouse Reepicheep (Eddie Izzard) and badger Trufflehunter (Ken Stott), to the dwarves Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage, who offers excellent and most welcome comic line readings) and Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), to the mostly decorative minotaurs and centaurs. While the former tend to huff and puff, providing muscle when it comes time for combat, the latter are granted tearful close-ups and Glenstorm (Cornell S. John) appears to be the sole black being in Narnia, most frequently holding his large sword aloft in shows of respect for Peter the Magnificent
Though it’s been a log time coming, Peter’s return is mostly eagerly awaited by the Narnians (though more than one wonder aloud why the royals disappeared all those centuries ago). And as soon as he duly recognized, peter takes a kind of charge, not quite trusting Caspian, even competing with him, and wary of the maybe-romance developing between the prince and Susan. Peter’s command of the rebellion against the Telmarines assumes the recovery of Caspian’s own throne (it goes without saying that the creatures want to be ruled by a human of some sort), though his early tactical decisions are not as brilliant as they might be (apparently he didn’t spend his year back in London studying military history). This makes for a prolonged running time, as the film includes mêlée after mêlée, as well as recriminations against the commander in chief who goes in without an exit strategy or even much of a battle plan.
Yes, C.S. Lewis was writing long before Operation Iraqi Freedom, and no, Prince Caspian is not even a little bit thoughtful about its clamoring for righteous battle, much less anti-war. (And all right, it’s a kids’ movie, though that would seem to make its warmongering even more cautionary.) Still, the film — including errors, regrets, and big-music triumphs to cancel out the regrets — highlights the repetitions committed in the name of Christianity or other mission-oriented endeavors. For all the many battle scenes (including sword fighting, catapulting, flying arrows and marching metal boots, most managed through extremely proficient CGIed “magic”), the whole plotty mess comes down to a one-on-one between male humans. Watching these sons of Adam, one gone forth “For Aslan!” and the other obviously and completely doomed, the animals are can only wait to be saved. Again.