THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (2008). This C.S. Lewis adaptation is darker than 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which seems to be the path taken by many second installments in film franchises (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation). In this one, the Pevensie kids – Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) – return to the magical land of Narnia, only to find a gloomy environment in which humans have taken over and all mystical creatures are hiding in the forests. Eventually, the woodland inhabitants, the Pevensie siblings and the dashing Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) band together to restore Narnia to its previous glory. A couple of familiar faces return, yet it's cast newcomer Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) who walks away with this film; he's excellent as Trumpkin, a surly dwarf who aids the cause. As for the kids, this is clearly a case where girls rule while boys drool. Susan cuts a fierce figure as a warrior queen, while Lucy is allowed to establish the strongest bonds with the Narnians. On the other hand, Edmund is given too little to do, while Peter is only slightly less generic than fellow pretty-boy Caspian – whenever Peter and Caspian bicker, it's like watching the leaders of two feuding boy bands get in each other's faces. But overall, this improves on the original; even the visual effects, shaky in the first film, are far more smoothly executed here.
Extras in the three-disc DVD include audio commentary by director Andrew Adamson and cast members; deleted scenes; featurettes on the set design and location shooting; and a piece on Dinklage and his character.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Given the fact that Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins ranks as one of the best superhero flicks ever made, then where does that put this sequel that manages to be even more phenomenal than its predecessor? Certainly, it places it somewhere at the head of the class, and there's a nice symmetry to its release date: After all, it was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman – still the greatest of all comic book adaptations – was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a superhero saga that's as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. In fact, this might be the first superhero movie that exudes a palpable sense of dread and menace that tugs at our nerves in a way that both disturbs and delights us. Even in superior entertainment like Spider-Man and Iron Man, there's a feeling that it's all make-believe, but The Dark Knight offers no such safety net – it wears its danger on its sleeve. In this outing, Batman (Christian Bale) has done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who have long controlled Gotham City, and he's soon aided in his efforts by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But their combined attempts to corral the city's crooks are hampered by the presence of a murderous psychopath known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture's most fully realized characterization, though we all know who's the MVP of this particular show: The late Ledger is simply mesmerizing as this whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin.
Extras in the two-disc special edition include six scenes presented in their original IMAX framing; a piece on Hans Zimmer's excellent music score; a look at the design of the Bat-suit and the Bat-pod; and a poster gallery.
MAMMA MIA! (2008). Meryl Streep fans and ABBA fans can at least count on those two components firing on all cylinders in this adaptation of the Broadway smash; everyone else, though, may be forced to rummage through the debris that constitutes the rest of the picture to find anything worth salvaging. Streep is aptly cast as Donna, a former singer raising her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) at her hotel on a Greek island. Sophie's about to marry hunky Sky (dull Dominic Cooper), but first she's determined to learn the identity of her father. The candidates are suave Sam (Pierce Brosnan), uptight Harry (Colin Firth) and rascally Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and as long as the actors essaying the roles stick to walking and talking, they're fun to watch. But whenever one of them is called upon to sing, be prepared to duck and cover as their aural ineptitude bombards our eardrums (Brosnan especially looks physically pained choking out the lyrics, as if he's being subjected to a prostate exam just outside of the camera's eye). There's no reason this couldn't contain all the effulgence and expertise of other musical adaptations like Hairspray and Chicago, but stage director Phyllida Lloyd appears to be so blissfully ignorant of the dynamics of moviemaking that, aside from the songs themselves, there's little joy to be found in the musical numbers. The clumsy camerawork, editing and staging all diminish rather than enhance the perceived showstoppers, and the choreography ranks among the most dreadful I've ever witnessed in a big-budget musical. All of this adds up to produce the biggest cinematic disappointment of 2008.