May 27, 2008

Indy Disappoints while the Lion Roars

Having experienced both Indy and Caspian this weekend, the clear winner for most consistent presentation and execution of story and theme is Prince Caspian. Bluntly, it is just the better film. Clearly a surprise.

Couldn't wait for the lights to go down as I was absorbed by the big screen around me. Soon enough, my favorite fedora-clad action hero would be back in service...

Harrison Ford picks up wonderfully where he left off, older and wiser, but the wit and humor is still solidly in place. (The quicksand gag is perfect.) The action sequences are pretty good, with the villains holding up to their predecessors. The settings exotic, the sets extraordinary, the special effects great.

For all the special effects and whiz bang action, the Indy films are really about the character of Dr. Jones, his integrity and his loyalty to what is true and right. This is where Last Crusade shines. In the fourth film, this is mostly forgotten, certainly secondary. The characters and their interaction are very weak throughout the film. Karen Allen's talent and charm is wasted in her return. The dialogue does little in giving her room to stretch. Conversely, Mutt Williams surprises by being a decent character addition. His tough guy persona is a bit unrealistic, as Shia LeBouf doesn't bring much grit or edge to his role. Yet, once the real action starts with Mutt along for the ride, I found him to be a good and energetic sidekick for our aging hero. Silly plot aside, in the end, Dr. Jones remains true to form and true to his ideals, owning up to his own heart and to his relationships. In this, he is a real world hero.

So, what's my beef with Crystal Skull? The plot line is out of place with the rest of the series. I won't go into any detail, but once I understood where this was going early on in the film, all I could think was "Really?" By choice, I put my disappointment behind to enjoy what good was to be found. A viewer and a fan should never have to do that. I did enjoy the movie quite a bit, but I wanted to walk out loving it. Putting it in perspective, maybe Crystal Skull is just an expensive statement on the silliness that is Scientology. But it should have been more. Sure, I'll buy the film on DVD, especially for the behind the scenes featurettes, but it will sit beside Temple of Doom as one of the lesser movies in the series.

I did not have high expectations for the second Disney film based on the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. Having not read the books and not knowing what to expect, my attitude was one of neutrality. In my humble opinion, the first film was well done, good but not wonderful. For this American, it was filled with very capable but mostly unknown actors. Tilda Swinton was the lone name actor, giving an absolutely mesmerizing performance as Jadis, the White Witch. In contrast to The Lord of the Rings, the simpler and subtler charms of this film eventually won me over. A film stuffed with child actors and talking animals is normally not a draw to me, yet the substance of the film- the inherent deeper meanings found in the allegory, was profound and overcame my prejudices.

Caspian is much darker in tone and far less subtle than the film before it. This is both its strength and its weakness, as it is easier to understand the plot, but the battle sequences slightly overshadowed the truths found in its dialogue. That said, the filmmakers did an excellent job in keeping me engaged. The environments drew me in, the nonhuman creatures were interesting, and the transitional element from London to Narnia was far more compelling than the similar device in Harry Potter. Regardless of the title, Prince Caspian himself is not the hero nor is he the central character. At this point in the story, he functions as a reason to propel the plot. Aslan, the true hero, whose wisdom and power was the pivotal centerpiece of the first film, its heart and soul, comes late into this one. I eagerly anticipated Aslan's arrival, and he did not disappoint.

I had no attachment to the Narnia story or its characters, and this was to the film's benefit and my enjoyment of it, allowing me the luxury of growing to understand and appreciate the characters versus having preconceived expectations of them. Conversely, my emotional and youthful attachment to the Indiana Jones series and its characters worked against my loving the fourth installment. Ultimately, Indy disappoints because it trades its consistency and soul for cheap sci-fi thrills. Caspian wins converts because it remains true to form, steady and solid in substance and execution.

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