One thing I've noticed about most epic sci-fi/fantasy stories is that they're essentially about war, albeit disguised and softened with weird monsters, robots and other creatures with funny names. There's usually a bad guy (with a really sinister sounding name) who wants to take over the world or something similar, and a reluctant hero -- plucked from his comfortable, yet mundane home -- who has to stop him. The trick is to make it all fun. Because let's face it, we humans love war. If we didn't there wouldn't be so many movies and books about war, as well as -- you know -- real wars. (More specifically, I think, we love watching them, rather than fighting in them.) The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked so well because Peter Jackson projected his own twisted glee into every frame; he loved making those movies and it showed. The characters felt an anxious anticipation toward the battle, like a buildup, and the battles themselves were explosive releases. The new film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the second in an unfortunately ongoing series, treats war as if it were already played out, rather than happening before our eyes. It's a dead dog dull bore of a movie, but that won't stop it from making a fortune. (See also Jette's review.)


When his treacherous uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) tries to have him killed, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) escapes into the woods, and blows the conch that will summon the kings and queens of old. He also discovers that the Narnians -- consisting of little people, centaurs, talking mice and other beasties -- are not extinct, as he has been taught, and that his uncle actually killed his father. Our four kings and queens, Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley), Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes), Peter Pevensie (William Moseley) and Susan Pevensie (Anna Popplewell), arrive, and even though very little time has passed in England, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia and things have changed drastically. Since Prince Caspian's people, the Telmarines, stole the throne, animals stopped talking, trees stopped moving and Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) seems to have disappeared. Since his family is a bunch of one-dimensional bad guys, Caspian decides to side with the slightly less one-dimensional good guys and start a war for the throne.

From there, it's all arguments, strategy discussions and long, boring battle sequences, written in stilted dialogue and filmed directly out of the current playbook. Director Andrew Adamson uses sweeping camera movements when he wants to show off some impressive CG sets or effects, but switches to jerky hand-held for the fights. In all this, the actors are lost. Peter gets the most character development, although his trouble seems to lie somewhere between controlling his temper and making tough wartime decisions. "Who are you doing this for?" asks Susan during one heated moment, but the answer never comes. Meanwhile, Lucy sees Aslan and no one else believes her. That's her big character development. Susan has nothing to do, and Edmund's biggest treat is that he gets to play with a flashlight.

In directing his actors, Adamson mainly shows them reacting, mouths agape, to special effects they obviously can't see. And when he gets really stuck, he simply lines them up and has them pose for the camera like a soccer team photo. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Tilda Swinton stole the show as the White Witch, surveying everything around her as if profoundly disgusted by everyone else's sheer incompetence. Though she appears here for a few moments, there's no one to take her place. Eddie Izzard comes close, providing the voice for the eloquent, swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep, and Peter Dinklage is a wonderfully grumpy and sarcastic Trumpkin, but these characters get even less time than the heroes. Poor Caspian gets the shortest end of the stick; the film sets up a romance between he and Susan, but it goes nowhere (except for a tacked-on kiss). The filmmakers happily decided to make Caspian Latino, but unfortunately that means the rest of his family -- also Latino -- are the bad guys. (They're played by a range of Brits, Italians, etc. The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

The fans of C.S. Lewis books will no doubt be able to mentally fill in the film's dead spots and trick themselves into enjoying it, but this is not much of a film. Director Adamson was not hired to give it a personal vision, but rather to make it as closely as possible to The Lord of the Rings. His last outing, the first two Shrek films, called on him to copy the Pixar formula, and each time he has proved an artistic flop, but a financial bonanza. He is exactly what Hollywood loves to bet its money on; he's safe, and that's exactly what brings out the worst in movies. There's a running joke in Prince Caspian: every time Reepicheep attacks, his potential victim responds the same: "you're a mouse!" The last time this happens, Reepicheep sighs wearily and responds, "You people have no imagination!" I couldn't think of a better description for the makers of these films.