While Disney's Narnia is not my Narnia, the question is will it be yours?
Full disclosure: I am by no means an unbiased reviewer. The Chronicles of Narnia played a significant role in my coming to faith in Christ. At a time when no one else was talking to me about Jesus, C.S. Lewis introduced a nine year old me to a lion named Aslan, teaching me to believe in things that only the faith of a child could comprehend. The Chronicles were not simply the story of the four Pevensie children. They were my story. I walked among them, inventing places that I am certain not even the High King Peter knew existed. My imagination painted every inch of Lewis' landscape. It is hard then to not feel violated when another child shows up with his paint set. Watching these movies, I feel a bit like Peter, certain where the Fords of Beruna should be, but disoriented all the same. I do not mean to be over-particular. It is just that I--like many of you--have a map in my head of what it all should look like. For some, Peter Jackson's Middle Earth was not their Middle Earth. For me, Andrew Adamson's Narnia is not my Narnia.
But it is a good film. I am fully convinced that the vast sums of money spent to create this movie were not wasted, and I welcome their continued arrival at a theatre near me. They have sold me. The effects are spectacular. The talking animals really talk, the eagles really fly, and the Lion really roars. The battles are as epic as a PG rating will allow, and many of the changes have turned what is a meandering book full of amusing one liners into a seriously entertaining action-adventure.
It is a lesson learned early in this franchise. _With the Harry Potter films, it took until their third installment to recognize that they didn't need to make Hogwarts to everyone's contentment. Prisoner of Azkaban was a considerably darker film, deeper and richer than its predecessors, yet, in so doing, it paid greater homage to the book it diverted from. Having sought to remain faithful to the book with Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Caspian's artistic departure makes for a fuller film than the first. However, it is a lesson only half learned. Adamson brings a welcome depth to the characters, but in so doing fails to honor Lewis' own purpose for some of those same characters. Lucy is "a brick" as Peter calls her (that is, she alone remains steadfast). Edmund, in all his repentant glory, has fully cast aside the cloak of traitor and taken up the mantle of a king. All the talking beasts are just as they should be--complete with paw sucking bears and sword yielding mice. But Peter, Caspian, and Susan are worse for the wear.
In Peter, teen angst has erased the imprint of nobility. His first appearance in the film is in full brawl on a train station platform, nary a High King in sight. Once in Narnia, the air of that place makes him bitter, rather than bold; hasty, rather than heroic; gritty, rather than grown up. While the Peter of the book did struggle with his faith in Aslan, he did it while keeping his eye on aiding Caspian and saving Narnia. This Peter, convinced he is the king, is constantly at odds with the very one he has come to defend and establish. His internal strife becomes all-encompassing and his deliverance arrives not by learning his lesson from Aslan, but by finally proving himself the victor over Miraz--a subtle difference that betrays the failure of the filmmakers to understand what Lewis was after: namely, that life's real battles are won by forgiveness, not might.
Our oddly older Caspian comes across as a man with little love for Narnia--more Telmarine than Son of Adam. Early on he brandishes a poker at Trufflehunter and Nikabrik, threatening to leave and leading us to believe he has no more desire to be in old Narnia than back at Miraz' castle. Would the younger Caspian of the book have been so lacking in compassion for Aslan's speaking creatures? This Caspian seems to be saving all of his love instead for a certain high queen. (If you are not a fan of "kissing films," you'd best
you'd best close your eyes during the final scene.) Granted, we do learn from Lewis' other books that Susan was a black-haired beauty over whom battles were fought, and this does set us up for Caspian's love affair with a Star in Dawn Treader and his own son, Rilian's, obsession with the beautiful Lady of the Green Kirtle in Silver Chair. The introduction of a love story here, however, serves only to distract the children, and us, from the purpose for which they have been summoned and the lessons they must learn.
This Caspian is truly a lover and not a fighter. Consumed by his own cowardly desires, we see little of Lewis' boy who must be king. In a castle raid only pondered in the book, but turned into a lavish and full force attack in the movie, Caspian defies Peter's orders and endangers the lives of his own men (er, beasts) by selfishly going after his uncle Miraz. It is a scene so forced and silly that the Princess Bride devotee fully expects to hear Caspian crying out with Inigo, "you killed my father prepare to die" even as his uncle sheepishly escapes thanks to the handy placement of a crossbow and a secret passage. Caspian's selfishness costs them the battle. Later, Caspian is taken in again by his desires, mesmerized as Edmund once was by the spell of a ravishing (and nearly reconstituted) White Witch. All of this serves to make Caspian's kingship more of an afterthought than an honor bestowed. Even in the final scenes, he strides alone about the castle yard looking more like a love-struck schoolboy than the Defender of Narnia.
Susan is not unlike the Susan of the books. We begin to see a bit of the girl who will miss the train to Narnia in Last Battle for her obsession with "nylons and lipstick and invitations"--the latter presumably involving boys. The biggest departure from the book is her inclusion in the battle, though she remains in the back row with the archers. Her real role in the film is to fill the void left by the others. While Peter is struggling to prove his kingship, and Caspian is struggling to attain Susan, and Lucy is struggling to find Aslan, Susan alone remains to become warrior queen, pursuer (she kisses him), and matriarch all rolled into one.
Only Edmund seems to be actually paying attention to the battle at hand, and as such, he shines in this film. Like Lucy, his faith remains constant despite his inability to see Aslan. While Peter is trying to find himself, Edmund has been found. Strong and loyal, he is a man who has encountered the Lion and lived to tell about it.
And then there is Lucy. She is our heroin and the reason we are watching. Full of faith, she seeks the unseen over that which is seen. She is constantly praying freedom for a captive Narnia. It is in her encounters with Aslan that we see Lewis most clearly and faithfully--albeit marked by platitude (and perhaps just a hint of Erasmus) at times. As she and the Lion discuss the inability of the others to believe we catch a glimpse of the lesson they all need to learn: that it's all about Aslan. It always has been. And it always will be. He is the only source of hope. And to Adamson's credit, Aslan is the victor at the last.
So, while it isn't my Narnia, sometimes it takes a copy to help you appreciate the original. So go see Prince Caspian. Be thankful that others have chosen to honor Lewis' Narnia, your Narnia, our Narnia. Enjoy it for the family entertainment that it is. After all, it has taken
Oh, and if you need me, I'll be in my wardrobe.