“That’s it,” said my friend, following our Monday evening screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. “I’m through with Narnia.” I know the feeling; it’s the same one I get after semi-dozing through the latest Harry Potter picture, which evidence to the contrary I’m told are getting better. That I was back at Narnia at all was kind of a surprise, given my thumbs-down response to the whole idea of sitting through a C.S. Lewis sequel in my summer movies preview last month (“a movie no one over, what, age 14, needs to see,” I sniffed). But I’m a sucker for a free preview for something that, if it got good reviews, I’d be obliged to pay eleven Brooklyn dollars to see.
It turned out to be a long sit: 144 minutes. But my posterior wasn’t too chafed as the last digital effects credit slid down the screen. I found I was in the mood for this kind of swords-clanging adventure, if only for the duration. The problem with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of a likely seven pictures promised, was that it smacked of opportunism, following in the wake of the terrific Lord of the Rings pictures, my favorite film fantasies. As a series of books, it had its own identity, and act as a sort of Christian “answer” to Tolkien’s more heathen-ish tales, which were published in roughly the same period. [The two had a complex friendship.] Filmically, however, Rings captured the flag first, after false starts and a long gestation, and the Narnia pictures feel a little stale and impoverished by comparison. They follow in massive footsteps, which all but swallowed up the shallower homegrown mythmaking of the Star Wars prequels.
But enough time has elapsed since 2003’s stupendous Return of the King to consider the new Narnia on its own terms. The Christian elements, which Lewis himself downplayed, are further soft-pedaled here, but are likely to be a persistent, if gnat-like, bother to anyone troubled by them. [The messier, unlikely-to-be continued Golden Compass may be more your pagan speed.] Andrew Adamson’s direction is more assured this time, if lacking much of the humor of his first two Shrek pictures; there’s no way to simply shrug off or throw away all this mythology without irking the fan base. [My beef with the Harry Potters is this pathological need to cram in as much of everything as possible, to the extent that two films will be made from the seventh and final book. Works by much finer authors should be so lucky to have such craven adaptors.] The story is more of a straight-ahead swashbuckler for the family crowd, and the talking animals (more gracefully CGI-ed in Compass) are part of the fabric, not the whole show.
If you thought 18 years between Indiana Jones movies was long, consider that the gap between these is 1,300—that is, in Narnia years. The kingdom has fallen into ruin, and the four Pevensie children are whisked off the platform of the London Underground to assist young Prince Caspian in his quest to wrest the blighted land from the clutches of his usurping uncle, King Miraz (Italian actor Sergio Castellitto, co-star of arthouse hits Mostly Martha and Don’t Move, bringing the proper sinister gravitas to the part). One Earth year after their first adventure, the now Narnia-wise kids join coalition forces consisting of a grab-bag of Narnians, most enjoyably the cocky mouse Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard, and Peter Dinklage as the tough-talking Trumpkin, the Red Dwarf. Dinklage, a good actor and an in-demand voiceover talent, has resisted this sort of casting for so long I felt a twinge of sympathy for him, but he makes the most of a potentially demeaning opportunity. Showing him the fantasy-film ropes is ex-Ewok and Willow star Warwick Davis, as the Red Dwarf’s more circumspect companion.
The holdovers get shorter shrift. Freshly minted Oscar winner Tilda Swinton’s encased-in-ice reappearance as the White Witch (the star attraction of the first installment) is vivid but almost pointlessly brief. Aslan the godly lion is a tease, turning up in an early dream sequence, then not till near the end, for the final final battle (as opposed to the final battle—there’s a lot of PG-level battling this time, highlighted by a lengthy, and genuinely exciting, siege on Miraz’s castle). Liam Neeson, however, remains at the top of the talking animal food chain.I can see why long-locked British stage actor Ben Barnes (one of the History Boys) was cast as Prince Caspian. He’s not a wuss, but he’s not too manly or threatening, either, and ideal for the tween and teen girls in the audience. I would have cast someone with more fire in the belly, who might have handled the semi-Spanish accent more capably. The Chronicles of Narnia films, however much this one advances on the first, aren’t really made for me, though. I’m not sure I’m through with them, yet I better understand my place in the kingdom.
After the kids’ stuff of Prince Caspian and Speed Racer I was primed for something a little more grown up, and accumulated the wisdom of age by the barrelful from the touching documentary Young@Heart, named after the senior citizens’ singing group that has made a splash outside of its home base of Northampton, MA. The director, Stephen Walker, saw them on the British leg of an international tour, and followed them back to the U.S. to film their story as they prepared for a new tour. The group, composed of 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds, formed 25 years ago to perform vaudeville and American songbook classics for audiences of their peers. Sensing an opportunity to expand their audience, chorus director Bob Cilman reoriented the selections toward harder-edged rock, and came up with a winning formula.
The transition is continual. Whenever Cilman introduces a new song, like “I Wanna Be Sedated” or “Schizophrenia,” there is a certain resistance from the oldsters, who don’t understand or can’t remember the indecipherable lyrics. [Landing the 71 “can’s” in “Yes We Can Can” is a challenge right up until showtime.] Cilman, who is himself no spring chicken after years with the group, has two perennial challenges: Keeping the group healthy, and instilling a proper rebel spirit that respects the material. The second is accomplished through trial-and-error, sometimes hilariously so; the first is out of Cilman’s, or anyone’s, hands, and makes for some truly heartbreaking moments.
Walker’s rudimentary filmmaking and overenthusiastic narration are irritants that subside, as the group members, lively despite infirmity, are a balm to the soul. When a pairing planned for Coldplay’s “Fix You” unexpectedly becomes a solo, ailing heart patient Fred Knittle takes the stage alone, to sing the song in a version so poignant Chris Martin might have to wait another 50 years to reclaim it. Popdosers will appreciate the message: Rock ‘n’ roll never dies, but it may require a walker or a respirator over time.
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