The worst thing about The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it followed the most successful fantasy film trilogy of all time. Just two years after Return of the King blew us away in theatres and swept the Oscars, and only one year after the flagship Extended Edition release set a new standard for DVD excellence, ‘Wardrobe promised the return of high fantasy to theatres near us. Unfortunately, it proved to be nowhere near adequate for any Lord of the Rings comparison. It was sweet, non-threatening and even a little campy, where Peter Jackson’s films had been majestic, serious and polished – one fluffy, the other dramatic.
When The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian hit theatres in late 2007, I hoped it would offer a more mature Narnia, but I wasn’t too optimistic (these are supposed to be child-friendly, after all). Imagine my pleasant surprise early on when Trumpkin uttered this to the four child heroes: ”You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.”
That was music to my ears. And it’s true, at least to a degree. A year after the events of Wardrobe, our young heroes have returned to Narnia, and they’re astonished to discover that about 1,300 Narnian years have passed since they last ruled as High King Peter (William Moseley), King Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Queen Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Queen Lucy (Georgie Henley). They soon learn they were summoned by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) of the Telemarines, who escaped with his life from his uncle Miraz’s (Sergio Castellitto) murderous grasp, only to fall in with a ragtag bunch of Narnians who’ve been living in hiding and fear of the Telemarines. See, the Telemarines tried to exterminate the Narnians in years past, and believed they had, but the Narnians have been hiding, right under their noses, in a forest of trees that lie dormant because a lot of the magic has faded away.
That stuff, definitely more savage. But the film as a whole still feels like it wants to be a kid-friendly romp in a magical land, so the darkness and Disney-ness are odds for most of the two-hour-plus running time. As the Kings and Queens of old join forces with Caspian and the remaining Narnians to take back Narnia and restore Caspian as rightful heir to the throne, there are moments of excitement and grandeur, and even a little danger, but there’s also plenty of silliness and overriding safety for all concerned.
Thankfully, the film’s comic relief – mostly courtesy of the little mouse-knight, Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard, a hilarious, brilliant comic – is quite effective. He’s like the opposite of Jar-Jar Binks. Reepicheep is supported by Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), who plays a larger role in the film but only dabbles in the funny. Trumpkin has a biting wit that meshes well with his surly demeanor.
As for the rest of the cast, there are no shining stars. The “children” have clearly matured since Wardrobe, but they don’t do much more than meet expectations. The new star, Ben Barnes’ Caspian, is little more than a dreamy cardboard cutout, and even the deep bench of experienced international actors – Damián Alcázar, Pierfrancesco Favino, Simón Andreu and others – don’t manage to create more than one-dimensional identities. It’s not their fault, though, as the film skims through their moments much too quickly.
An element that hasn’t improved much upon Wardrobe is the visual effects. They look about five years behind the curve, falling well short of the impressive moments in Lord of the Rings or many other big blockbusters. The film’s battle scenes do play better, despite the lagging effects, thanks to more convincing fight choreography and a better developed since of danger.
In the end, Prince Caspian certainly manages to outdo its predecessor, but Narnia still can’t stack up with Middle Earth, or even its child-friendly peer, the world of Harry Potter. So, how’s the DVD set?
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is presented on two discs, with the film on disc one in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen format. The film benefits from a great transfer, bringing the fantasy to life with realistic, slightly drab colours, rich detail and no sign of compression issues or source artifacts. There’s a lot feast your eyes on in Narnia, from the eccentric costumes to the gorgeous locations, like the devastatingly beautiful beach where our heroes first find themselves upon their return to this magical realm.
The main audio presentation is Dolby Digital 5.1. Nearly impressive as the visuals, the surround mix does a great job with the sounds of Narnia. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score sounds full, with a good amount of support from the LFE track, but dialogue is always audible. The film’s plentiful effects make good use of the surrounds, for both directional and atmospheric impact, putting you right in the middle of the adventure. There’s also plenty of bass underscoring the twisting trees and other earth-shaking events. Overall, a solid aural experience.
5.1 audio is also available in French and Spanish, along with subtitles in all three languages.
This two-disc collector’s set (the third doesn’t really count, since it’s just the digital copy for portable use) comes packed with enough extras to satisfy most fans. Disc one includes a commentary track by director Andrew Adamson and the five young stars: Moseley, Keynes, Popplewell, Henley and Barnes. If you like your commentaries technical and informative, this one’s not for you. There is some insight to be had, but there’s also plenty of joking around – not much of a surprise given the age of the participants.
Disc two is where it’s at. Here’s a breakdown of the goods:
- Inside Narnia – the Adventure Returns: at just over half an hour, this making-of featurette offers a solid look behind the scenes as Adamson and company take another voyage into the world of Narnia.
- Sets of Narnia – a Classic Comes to Life: a substantial 23-minute foray into the production design of Narnia. We see how the artists took their cues from original sketches in the C.S. Lewis novel, and learn how they fleshed out what readers had only imagined before.
- Big Movie Comes to a Small Town: a little shorter, this featurette is nonetheless a great addition to the bonus material. See how a small community in a little-known pocket of the world accepted the small army that was the Prince Caspian cast and crew.
- Deleted Scenes: about 12 minutes’ worth, and none worth more than a quick look.
- Bloopers of Narnia: just over three minutes of laughs and gags from the set – a good amount, and likely fairly amusing for the younger viewers.
- Previsualizing Narnia: 10 minutes on exactly what it says. Most avid DVD viewers are pretty familiar with the “pre-viz” process used to iron out how major effects will look.
- Talking Animals and Walking Trees – the Magical World of Narnia: quite short, but it offers a glimpse at the work behind bringing creatures like Reephicheep to life.
- Secrets of the Duel: another short one, this time all about the fight between Peter and Miraz, an encounter I found disappointing in the film.
- Becoming Trumpkin: watch the hair/makeup process used to turn Peter Dinklage into long-bearded Trumpkin.
- Warwick Davis – the Man Behind Nikabrik: same deal as above, but a little more playful.
While I realize the Narnia series is aimed squarely at younger audiences, I can’t help comparing it to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. The latter is at least fair, if you ask me. As a result, I’m not engaged by the characters and their struggles. It all seems too light, too easy. But, Prince Caspian is a definite improvement over Wardrobe, and I’m sure anyone who liked the first will love the second. And unless you’ve got Blu-ray, this “3-Disc” DVD set is a must-buy for your family’s collection.