Prince Caspian (2008)

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Prince Caspian

by Adam Miller

I know that a film has particularly irked me when my review of it contains a prologue. Indeed, this review has led me to question just what Camp Academy has become—what kind of film belongs here? What is this website’s purpose? Obviously the site features films few would call campy (such as the recent review of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE). There is certainly a distinction between campy and bad which I won’t delve into too much here, but needless to say, Camp Academy has become something of a sounding board for taste as much as it has a bastion of the camp aesthetic. This tendency began as early as my diatribe against Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS “way” back when the site was founded. Though other movies have left me in sharp distaste (I’m looking at you, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) they did not warrant a review on this site because… well… I really can’t say. I guess there is no rhyme or reason as to what gets reviewed here. All this to say, that you’re about to be reading one of those reviews. The kind which spew vitriol, the kind that only a specially awful—and effectively awful—film can elicit.

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I watched the first CHRONICLES OF NARNIA film (THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE) and found it to be flawed in the following ways: 1) Its similarities [if not in story then in cinematic style] borrowed to heavily from either HARRY POTTER or LOTR. 2) Its plot was mildly banal—who really cares about these children? 3) Its overt Christian allegory became, at points, obnoxious, just as most Christian allegory does: it’s hard to have much suspense when you know whoever has Jesus/Aslan on their side is guaranteed victory. This lack of suspense is fine in real life (nice to know one’s stairway to Heaven is secure), but it makes for less than enthralling storytelling—especially when your story runs over two hours long.

These same problems remain in the sequel, PRINCE CASPIAN, but are compounded by what I can only describe as some of the most insidious, backwards-thinking content I’ve yet to see in a blockbuster film. Some of this is the fault of C.S. Lewis, the author writing in the 1950s, but as much if not more is the responsibility of the current filmmakers. And now for my favored philippic style… the list of reasons to hate PRINCE CASPIAN:

1. The film is racist. No ifs, ands or buts about it—I have never been so shockingly disturbed by nigh-blatant racism in a modern film. The context: the four (snow white, British) Pevensie children (heroes of the first film) have been summoned back to Narnia only things have changed quite a bit. Hundreds of years have passed and the Narnians (talking animals, dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, etc.) have gone into hiding thanks to the arrival of an almost-entirely evil race known as the Telmarines. Just who are these Telmarines; well, they’re the Spanish. Every single one of ‘em. And you know that means: dark hair, dark eyed, olive skinned, and with official Spanish accent [in fact, several of the actors playing these villains are not Spanish, but rather Italian… what a surprise]. These evil Telmarines are kind of like the Evil Empire in Lucas’ STAR WARS. Long ago, they killed off/drove into hiding the (consistently British) Narnians and then rewrote history claiming the Narnians to be extinct; might well have never existed. “Aslan is dead, and the Telmarines hath killed him.” In CASPIAN the Telmarine armies (in black uniforms, natch) go to war with the not-so-extinct Narnians and the Telmarines do all these evil things in battle (like, you know, try to win) and of course lose once Aslan makes his deus-ex machina appearance to save the day. Oh and the real kicker? At film’s end, Aslan informs the Telmarines that in fact they are “brigands” and “pirates” from the real world who accidentally found a portal into Narnia long ago. That’s right, the entire race of Telmarines (Spanish) are born from criminal stock. Yeesh! Add to this a bit of military animosity between the British and the Spanish (remember those Armada days?) and its linked religious animosity (Anglicans vs. Catholics) and you have a pretty potent brew of anti-Spanish (and latently anti-Catholic; certainly anti-atheist) sentiment. The case can be made, of course, that the titular Prince Caspian, a Telmarine, is the hero of the film—but his heroics are only validated when he joins the Narnians and agrees to worship Aslan! Oh, and the actor who plays Caspian? His name: Ben Barnes. Yeah, that’s right, he’s British. [Admittedly I had to look up where he was from on IMDB, but even while watching the film I could tell he was clearly not Spanish considering his accent was more reminiscent of Pacino’s Tony Montana than anything else].

2. You can’t spell laughter without slaughter? The film’s comic relief is on the short side—especially for a film skewed to a somewhat younger audience. Occasionally the Pevensie “children” (more on this later) will make a goofy remark worthy of a chuckle, but the film chooses to bank most of its laughs on the antics of Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse. Actually, Reepicheep only has one joke and it goes like this.

Soldier: What the heck? You’re a mouse!
Reep: Why is this so strange to everyone?
Soldier: Durrr…
Reep: STABS SOLDIER IN THE FACE AND KILLS HIM.

Yeah, that’s the punch line; or is it a stab line? Reepicheep kills more people in this film than likely any other character. And while I didn’t quite quote the above dialogue verbatim, I sure as hell accurately described Reepicheep stabbing some poor Telmarine soldier through the eye after flippantly acknowledging his mouse-ness. In a dark, twisted way this could actually be funny, but the film is so cheap with its violence (naturally it cuts away so we don’t actually see the soldier get stabbed in the eye, maybe Reepicheep just bopped him on the head Bunny-foo-foo style) that the dark humor never gets a chance to shine… thus to the next point…

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3. Irresponsible violence. Critics complained when films like Tarantino’s PULP FICTION featured tense violence and profanity (though even that film seems tame in retrospect). But to me, the more irresponsible violence is the kind described above. The kind that makes light of death. The kind that shows plenty of people getting stabbed but not a drop of blood. Granted, there are scenes where our heroes watch misty-eyed as one of their friends bites the dust, but these moments are trumped by one of the film’s most double-take inducing moments where “death” is clearly not reconciled with. At the end of the film, the good guys win (surprise surprise). And return triumphant to… the bad guy’s city. Now, you might expect the triumphant armies to be met with, at best, some ambivalence by the Telmarine people if not, more likely, outright hatred and grief. After all, the Narnians have slain thousands of Telmarine husbands, sons, and brothers. And how do the women and children (natch) of the city respond? With cheers and adulation!!!

ARE YOU @#$&ING KIDDING ME?

An occupying force just invaded your city, probably killed a key member of your family, murdered your king (however evil), and you’re CHEERING? Even the end of STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI, cheesy as it was, didn’t feature any Stormtroopers whooping it up with the Ewoks! The scene underscored for me just how out of touch, how frighteningly irresponsible, the filmmakers were in regards to the violence which they themselves had conducted.

4. They call it chronoLOGIC for a reason. This point is less offensive than it is just stupid on either C. S. Lewis’ or the filmmakers’ part. According to the film, the Pevensie children ruled as kings and queens of Narnia for hundreds of years after the end of the first film. They grew up to be more than full-fledged adults by the time they were forced to, finally, return to the real world and reassume their lives as teenagers. However, they retained all their experience and memories from Narnia. Indeed, Peter, the eldest sibling, even complains about being treated as a child in the real world—after all, he’s hundreds of years old! All right, fine, I can buy that premise. Apparently the actors and screenwriters, however, cannot. With the notable exception Edmund (Skandar Keynes) none of the actors play as if they had really lived for hundreds of years. Lucy, the youngest “child” is still treated as such by her siblings—no one believes what she says and all but roll their eyes at her suggestions. I mean seriously, if I ruled as a queen for hundreds of years, I would not have put up with that kind of treatment! Meanwhile, Susan, the oldest female while nicely less passive (she actually usesher bow and arrow… to kill people) has apparently never been kissed or had any sexual contact with a boy. Again—she’s lived for hundreds of years, grown to full adulthood in Narnia, and has never had sex? Admittedly, one of the conceits of Narnia is that humans are a special race in Narnia, and hard to come by, but really: hundreds of years? You’d think one might be at least driven to a bit of incest or at least some inter-species experimentation. I suppose the word “pansexual” takes on a new, more literal meaning in this context. Zing! Anyhoo… Finally, Peter—the former great king of Narnia—butts heads with the not even twenty year old Prince Caspian about who should command the troops. Honestly, if Peter has hundreds of years experience one would think he should do it, but throughout the film, his decisions seem they really were being made by a teenager, not a savvy ruler.

5. Transcendence… leave the war(ld) behind. I’ve mentioned the “real world” throughout this review. In the Narnia Chronicles, the real world is War-ridden England. This was an issue with the first film, and I won’t dwell on it long here except to make note that England is featured even less in CASPIAN than in LW&W. As a materialist, it is with a certain sadness to see depictions of uniformed British soldiers leaving a train station for an ultimate battle knowing that I’m shortly to be zipped off to fantasy land to watch another battle featuring cartoon animals, teenagers, and of course the evil Spanish. I’ve already written on how supsension of belief, but fantasy also tends towards a kind of conservatism and an obvious anti-materialism. I’m not a fanatic, but I appreciated Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It was clearly fantasy (and has codified most fantasy since with its goblins, elves, and wizards) but it was a fantasy absolutely rooted in history. Granted, Tolkien made this history up himself, but what was created was an entirely different world that had nothing to do with the planet Earth. While magic existed and while Gandalf and other characters were implied to be divine, they were still rooted in an ultimately material history (hence all the books about the History of Middle-Earth at Barnes and Noble). The history of Narnia is in contrast glossed over, but not nearly so much as the history of war ravaged Europe which Lewis introduces. The idea of these children escaping into a more-perfect world when their peers (Peter at least should be old enough to join the war effort, shouldn’t he?) go off to die in real battles reads depressingly.

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6. Jesus/Aslan as deus-ex machina. The entire thrust of the LOTR books is that they tell the story of the dawning of the age of men. True men get the aid of the “old” creatures of Narnia—some elves, trees, dwarves, and hobbits join in—but it is ultimately men who stand up to face evil and inherit the less-than-perfect world of Middle-Earth (as its less than perfect stewards). There is a certain noble hopefulness in this which reflects a kind of optimism to the post-war, post-modern tribulations Tolkien lived through. Can humans indeed serve as stewards of their world? LOTR never answers the question, it only shows humans take the first step towards stewardship. In the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, that question need never be answered for there is only one steward: Aslan the Lion. He is the creator, savior, and omnipotent rule of Narnia. No questions asked. For one thing, this ruins the movie: You know Aslan is going to save the day and thus watching these idiot kids/adults try to do otherwise just feels like a waste of two hours. But aside from this, if we accept the strong similarities between Aslan and Jesus/God don’t they paint a rather problematic portrait of the Christian deity? After all, Christianity is more or less the post-Old Testament religion. The whole fire and brimstone stuff has more or less come to an end; instead Christ’s teachings are largely about peace, love, and understanding. But Aslan is very much an Old Testament figure. His only purpose in CASPIAN is to kill the Telmarines (he kills their general personally) and after the battle Aslan is clearly a creature to be feared as much as he is to be loved. The violence of the lion/god-head is disturbing, especially in an age when our own country’s figurehead starts calling wars “crusades.” Shouldn’t we be seeing movies that speak out against religious violence rather than promote it? I am not a theologian, and I’m sure there are all sorts of arguments why it’s okay that Aslan is associated with (presumably righteous) violence, but I can’t seem to recall Jesus being celebrated for his bloodlust.

7. The story is bad. Stepping back from the problems of violence, Old Testament religion, and racism (you’d think that’d be enough, right?) one is still left with a lackluster rip-off of Hamlet. This just in: Prince Caspian’s father (King of the Telmarines) was (Shocked! Shocked!) murdered by Caspian’s Uncle Miraz who now plans to kill Caspian and seize the throne for himself. Let’s be frank Hamlet is a bad-ass tragedy. It ends with a mass-murder/suicide! It deals with ghosts, incest, and madness. Who is responsible for the destruction? Claudius? The ghost? Hamlet himself? CASPIAN takes the familiar plot and proceeds to poop lion turds on it. It basically posits: “Sure, things didn’t work out for the original Hamlet too well, but that’s because he didn’t have Aslan on his side to show him right from wrong! There actually was a way out for Hamlet: Aslan!” Needless to say, the whole affair seems trite compared with the magnificence of its source material. All you really need to know is that the analogue to Polonius survives the whole movie and looks like Santa Claus [though he isn’t really Santa Claus, because he was in the last NARNIA movie. Seriously.]

8. The fantasy is bad. I’ll be brief. It rips off (er, pays homage) to the Jackson’s Lord of the Rings on more than one occasion. The film’s beginning features a lone rider being pursued by nine black horsemen. The film’s conclusion features, no joke, an army of trees coming to life and defeating the enemy forces. Admittedly, some of this must have been written by Lewis and the filmmaker’s probably felt they had to remain faithful to their source material. I will give them a pass, but they’re still the one’s making the film in the post-Jackson context. Which brings me to my penultimate point…

9. C. S. Lewis does not belong in the 21st century. I hate to say it, but his works are just too antiquated. Even at their time of writing 60 years ago they were backward looking, and today they are simply ignorant. It follows then that the film adaptations are equally incompatible with modern thought. I ultimately only blame the filmmakers for choosing to reproduce Lewis’ works in the first place. The rest of the blame, with a few exceptions, lies with the source material itself. It’s wrong to only feature the self (Britain) as pure good and the other as evil. It’s wrong to abstain from showing the consequences of good and evil battling each other to the death. It’s wrong to excuse a character’s actions with the swish of a lion’s tail while that same lion then crushes and drowns his enemy. The filmmakers didn’t just make all of this up, they adapted it from Lewis’ own works. I won’t go into it here because it’s beyond the scope of a review of PRINCE CASPIAN, but I recommend everyone Wikipedia the final Narnia book, The Last Battle and judge for yourselves if you’d ever want to see it on the big screen. If you could ever imagine taking your children to it. There are those who would surely disagree with me, but by 2008 I don’t see how you can read Lewis as anything other than racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic. I’m not saying we should burn his books, but we sure as hell shouldn’t be spending millions of dollars to see him on the big screen.

10. It opened to the tune of $56.6 million.

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