(FANTASY) MOVIE REVIEWS: The Chronicles of Narnia: "Prince Caspian" (2008)

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The "Narnia" series is obviously Fantasy and not Science Fiction, but just like Frank Baum's "Oz" books, they've been unpredictably influential in Science Fiction circles (Heinlein loved the Oz books, and put a fairly embarasing visit to Oz in his entirely-embarasing novel, "The Number of the Beast;" Joe Straczynski named his reptilian aliens the "Narn" in hommage to CS Lewis' series, and there are scads of other less prevalent influences), so that puts it kind of on the fringe of our radar, if not solidly within our mandate. Thus, I've decided to post a (Long-overdue) review of the movie here.

Despite having gone to private Christian schools for more than half of my childhood, I never read the Narnia books. Steadfastly avoided them, actually. Not sure why. Probably just because they’re fantasy and I was more of an SF guy, or maybe it was just because everyone always told me to read ‘em, and I hated being told what to do. Dunno. Anyway, I had no interest in ‘em until “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” came out like 2 years ago an Republispouse wanted to see it, so we hauled the Republifamily off.

I didn’t care for “Lion, Witch, Etc,” and felt it to be overblown and padded out. They took a novel that had barely enough story for a 90 minute movie, and insanely padded it out to two and a half hours. I didn’t enjoy it, but the Republikids did, which resulted in us getting the books, and I’ve had to read several of ‘em by now as bedtime stories.

The good news is that Prince Caspian (And for some damn fool reason, *every* time I type that title, I misspell it as “Casbian” and have to go back and fix it) is a better movie than “Lion” was. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, and it repeats several of the sins of its predecessor – most notably it’s ponderously pointlessly long length – but on the whole, it’s a better movie. Though my memory of the book itself is rather fuzzy and most likely conflated with “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” I’m going to go out on a limb and say the movie is probably an improvement on the book itself.

There was what I thought at the time to be an interesting casting choice made in the movie that I mentioned in the original version of this review, but astute reader John Zerne has kindly pointed out to me that I'm mistaken. Originally, I said that "In most of the Narnia Books, the bad guys are the Calormen, or various groups descended from them (F'rinstance, when the Calormen take over Narnia, their descendents there are called Telarmene if I recall correctly).
These folk are very clearly supposed to be Arabs - they were burnouses, shoes that curl up at the toe, turbans, carry scimitars, are fond of continually quoting "The Poets" the way Arabs in the 1940s were depicted in the media as constantly rattling off poetic quotations from the Koran, etc. They're also described as being dark skinned or black. While not every Calormen character is depicted as being evil, their society is depicted as being utterly without merit, so the good members of their society that we meet are pretty much exceptions to the norm."

I went on to say that though I wouldn't call this cultural condescension especially racist for the times - Lewis tries to introduce good characters among the bad guys - but as Allegory goes, it's not too terribly hard to figure out what he's talking about, and obviously that's kind of a sticking point for making movies based on the books - if you do, essentially you're making just flat-out Arab-bashing. Arch conservative that I am, this casual attitude of cultural (And racial) superiority made me cringe several times while reading the books, and if it had that effect on *me* then obviously Hollywood is obviously uncomfortable with it.

Later I said that In the first movie, the Calormen are completely absent, so no problem. In this sequel, however, they're the main bad guys, so it's unavoidable. Curiously, they decided to depict them not as Arabs at all, but - get this - as Spanish. (!)  All the Calormen are depicted by Hispanic actors, all with Hispanic accents, wearing conquistador helmets and medieval Spanish leather armor. It's very weird, to be honest, or so it seemed to me when I originaly wrote this.

my original conclusion was that rather than arab-bash, they've decided to spanish-bash. Curiously, there wasn't much backlash from this. At first I assumed it might be because the movie wasn't successful, and Disney ditched the franchise after releasing the film, but John Zerne has pointed out that the reason there wasn't any cultural backlash is that I'm completely wrong, owing to my confessed ignorance of the series. The bad guys in "Prince Caspian" are not the same race or nation as the bad guys in "The Horse and His Boy." (Though those ones clearly are meant to be arabesque and match the description I gave above.) That's what I get for not checking my facts before writing, and relying on my horribly conflated memory. (Just for the record, I've only read "Magicians Nephew" and "The Horse and His Boy." I didn't make it through "Voyage of the Dawn Treader.")

But really this just makes Disney's decision to abandon the series that much more confusing: checking just now I found the film broke even, which means a whole lot of people saw it. This makes the lack of some kind of comment on its oddly-chosen racial substitution all the more surprising, as it also does The Mouse's odd decision to stop making "Narnia" movies.

I still have no idea what was behind that decision, however the franchise *has* been picked up by another studio, who will be making "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" with the original actors from the disney films, so good news for the fans, I suppose, though I'm not really one of them. (Details about "Dawn Treader" are available here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Narnia:_The_Voyage_of_the... )

[Edited on 3/22/09 to remove some no-factual information]