Magically Surreal

Far from sending out subliminal religious messages, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is an uncomplicated adaptation of a children's classic

When the first instalment of the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was released in cinemas three years ago, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee went into a virtual tailspin of indignation. Narnia, she wrote, and the series of adventures of a group of wartime schoolchildren who magically gained entry to this enchanted kingdom, represented everything that was most hateful about religion. While admitting that the Christian allegories so ­reviled by Philip Pullman and all right-­thinking people everywhere would probably go over the heads of most children, adults, who “wince at the worst elements of Christian belief, may need a sick-bag handy for the most religiose scenes”.

Really, Polly? Everything that’s most hateful? She should get out more. How about ­witnessing the execution of a gay Iranian, or the decapitation of a filmmaker in broad daylight in a busy Amsterdam street? She’d need an awful lot of sick-bags for that.

Maybe she just has a weak stomach. It couldn’t have helped too that the movie, along with the just-released second in the series, Prince Caspian, and the five future instalments, are the work of Disney, who of course, in the Guardianista universe, officially handle public relations for the Great Satan. But Polly and her friends shouldn’t get too worried — the allegorical subtext in Prince Caspian remains very sub indeed, and far from being a synthetic Hollywood adventure-fest, the tone is surprisingly English.

Lewis himself dismissed much of the analysis of those who saw something intentional and insidious behind the adventures of the Pevensie children as “pure moonshine”. “I couldn’t write in that way,” he said in Of Other Worlds, his collection of essays and stories. “It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

This time round, the landscape has changed somewhat; apart from the briefest of reappearances, there is no queen, and the lion Aslan, voiced by Liam Neeson, is very much on the sidelines, having gone missing since the children’s last visit a year before (which apparently amounts to over a millennium in Narnia years). The exquisite centaurs and swashbuckling mice of Narnian legend have been banished to the periphery of the magic kingdom by a menacing foreign army, the Telmarines, who have somehow effected regime change and forced the true ruler, Prince Caspian (played by the young British newcomer Ben Barnes), to take refuge in the wooded wilderness. The Pevensie four — entering the kingdom this time not through a wardrobe but via a grimy London Tube station — are there to put this world to rights.

The manner in which they do it kept the two children I had with me at the screening — Zac, aged nine, and Raff, five — completely enthralled for almost two-and-a-half hours. There were none of the superfluous trips to the loo or requests for more popcorn that usually punctuate our visits to the pictures, even in the middle of the latest piece of frenetic, high-tech, supposedly child-friendly whiz-bang animation. Yes, I’m sure that they were completely unaware of any subliminal messages, but then, so would I have been if I hadn’t been boning up on Polly beforehand. Rather, what kept our attention was, essentially, another set of traditional but unfashionable and derided values and qualities: superb linear story-telling, Good setting its face unequivocally against Bad, and — in Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — a group of school children with aspirations to adulthood, decency and solid, foursquare resourcefulness.

The fashioning of Lewis’s story is, of course, down to the director, and as with the first instalment, Andrew Adamson handles it expertly. Auteurs be banished — directing in the context of an epic such as this is more akin to being a military strategist, and Adamson marshals his CGI armies and flesh-and-blood kings and queens with flawless precision, up to and including a stupendously staged final battle, which sees the very ground collapsing from underneath the feet of charging Telmarines. And in an era in which Hollywood seems to have given up completely on the ability of the average adult to concentrate for more than 30 seconds, this family picture even dares to let the talky bits flow, by which time the audience is on side enough to repay the compliment.

It’s also all done with a straight face. Oh, how refreshing this is. There are no invisible quote marks hanging in the air, no cocked eyebrows. This is especially true in the treatment of the Pevensie siblings. The temptation to have a bit of knowing fun with the period setting must have been great, but other than the intrusion of one or two grating anachronisms — it’s most unlikely that a middle-class school kid in wartime Britain would have proclaimed: “I’ve got it sorted” — these accomplished young actors have been allowed to play their characters without that irritating need to ingratiate themselves with their modern, supposedly more knowing counterparts. Peter (William Moseley) is quietly heroic, ­Susan (Anna Popplewell) self-possessed. One imagines that they might even go on to dev­elop stiff upper lips. They are school pupils from another age — one as distant from us now as Narnia itself.

And perhaps that is why we like them. Our screening took place during a weekend when the media was drenched in coverage of gang knifings, dead teenagers and youthful anti-social behaviour seemingly out of control. The enormous popularity of the kids from Narnia, like Harry Potter and his chums — all of them retro in their way — offer us the reassurance that it needn’t be this way, that, nostalgic though it may be, we must have been doing something right. Now there’s a subtext for Polly to ponder.

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