The dual, earth-rattling successes of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" franchises made it acceptable, once more, for Hollywood to embrace its often-stifled epic impulses and make grand, bloated spectacles for children of all ages to devour. Most attempts (The Golden Compass or "Lemony Snicket," anyone?) haven't had the cultural cachet of "LOTR" or "Potter," but if any revered series of books can be adapted, surely, it'd be those of C.S. Lewis, right?
Enter 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which didn't quite mesmerize the zeitgeist as "LOTR" or "Potter" had (although neither of those franchises can boast of inspiring a pretty sly "Saturday Night Live" digital short), but still raked in over $745 million worldwide. Not too shabby, even if critics, which gave the film mostly positive marks, did lob a few tomatoes (primarily over Wardrobe's religious allegories). I never warmed to the first Narnia film, finding it a bit too slick and the Pevensie children a bit too homogenous to really be effective, but appreciated the fact that filmmakers were finally taking notice of Lewis's expansive, imaginative series of seven novels.
Director Andrew Adamson returns for the second installment of the Narnia series -- Prince Caspian -- retaining the flair for lovingly CG-ed landscapes and sprawling setpieces that reliably fail to engage on a purely emotional level. The story is much darker in tone than Wardrobe, which is enough to merit recommending this film over the first (hey, nothing against whimsy and fantasy, but I hardly felt an urge to nod off during Caspian).
The plot is elegant in its simplicity: Time has marched on in the kingdom of Narnia, bringing with it considerable change, as more than a thousand years have elapsed between the Pevensie children's first visit and the time of this film (although in the "real" world, the Pevensie children have aged only slightly with the passage of one year). Narnia is being torn apart by political strife, as Prince Caspian (a woefully bland Ben Barnes) becomes a refugee after he learns of his vicious uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto)'s plans to kill him and take the throne.
A moment of desperation leads to the Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - being summoned back to Narnia, where they must face off against the murderous Miraz and help the Narnians reclaim their rights in the face of Telmarine soldiers' bloodlust.
Given the pitched struggles that take place for nearly all of Caspian's considerable run time, it's understandable that the second installment in the Narnia series feels far more frantic and violent than its predecessor - the battle sequences are top-shelf, big-dollar spectacles - yet for all of its meticulous, stylish setpieces, Caspian falls prey to the same dearth of charisma that afflicted the first film. It's hard to determine the culprit - the cast is OK, but nothing great; the narrative moves along, but doesn't deviate much from the source - but, for me at least, Caspian never truly springs to life.
Prince Caspian, with its more somber, urgent feel, ultimately becomes a slightly touching allegory about growing up and being forced to worry about things other than the fantastical. To that end, it has some worth. But as its budget increased (the second film cost a whopping $200 million to produce) and its box office take did not (a little over $420 million vs. Wardrobe's aforementioned total of $745 million), one can't help but wonder if the third Narnia film -- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, set for release in May and directed by Michael Apted, will bring a slightly sharper, less fussy sensibility to a series of novels that are certainly ripe for definitive cinematic treatment.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is practically spotless, sparkling just as a big-budget summer film should. The colors are vivid throughout, blacks are inky without becoming noisy and the level of detail is expectantly crisp, even during the more chaotic battle sequences. An all-around great image.
Matching the visuals step for step is the robust Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that manages to convey the richly textured chaos of the battle sequences as sharply as it does the more hushed, open scenes of conversation. The score floats beneath most scenes, largely unobtrusive and coloring the soundtrack in low-key fashion. Optional French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
For review, Disney provided the extensive, three-disc "collector's edition," which includes a digital copy of the film (compatible with Mac and PC). The first disc, aside from the film, contains a commentary track featuring Adamson, actors Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian), Georgie Henley (Lucy Pevensie), Skandar Keynes (Edmund Pevensie), William Moseley (Peter Pevensie) and Anna Popplewell (Susan Pevensie). It's a chatty track that does a good job of providing an extensive overview of the making of Caspian, peppered with personal insights about this particular chapter of the "Narnia" series. Also on the first disc are trailers for Disney Blu-ray, Pinocchio: Platinum Edition, The Cheetah Girls: One World, Space Buddies, Legend of the Seeker and Earth.
The second disc houses the bulk of the supplements, leading off with the 34 minute, 43 second featurette "Inside Narnia: The Adventure Returns" (presented in anamorphic widescreen), which functions as the general, behind-the-scenes overview. The 23 minute, 42 second featurette "Sets of Narnia: A Classic Comes to Life" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) explores the film's set design; the 23 minute, 17 second featurette "Big Movie Comes to a Small Town" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) details location shooting; the 10 minute, seven second featurette "Previsualizing Narnia" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) recounts the extensive use of pre-viz technology on the film and the four minute, 50 second featurette "Talking Animals and Walking Trees: The Magical World of Narnia" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) goes into further detail about the complicated special effects. Ten deleted scenes, playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 11 minutes, 17 seconds, are here (presented in anamorphic widescreen), each with a brief audio introduction from Adamson.
The three minute, six second featurette "The Bloopers of Narnia" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is self-explanatory, while the six minute, 45 second featurette "Secrets of the Duel" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) details one of the film's crucial segments. The four minute, 47 second featurette "Becoming Trumpkin" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) highlights actor Peter Dinklage's contributions to Caspian, while the 11 minute, seven second featurette "Warwick Davis: The Man Behind Nikabrik" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) does the same for Davis. To round out the set, a trio of Easter eggs -- a two minute, 17 second clip of Skandar Keynes on-set; a 53-second clip of the cast having a discussion and a one minute, 50 second clip of assistant director K.C. Hodenfield - are scattered throughout the menu screens of the second disc. For the featurettes, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included. And as mentioned above, the third disc contains a digital copy of Prince Caspian, which is compatible with Mac and PC.
Prince Caspian, with its more somber, urgent feel, ultimately becomes a slightly touching allegory about growing up and being forced to worry about things other than the fantastical. To that end, it has some worth. But as its budget increased (the second film cost a whopping $200 million to produce) and its box office take did not (a little over $420 million vs. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's aforementioned total of $745 million), one can't help but wonder if the third Narnia film -- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, set for release in May and directed by Michael Apted, will bring a slightly sharper, less fussy sensibility to a series of novels that are certainly ripe for definitive cinematic treatment. Nevertheless, die-hard fans of Caspian certainly won't have anything to complain about with this extras-packed three-disc set. Recommended.