The sequel to 2005's hugely popular "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which was the first of C.S. Lewis' seven-volume Narnia series to be filmed by Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, "Prince Caspian" is both like its predecessor and different from it. Though it retains a kid-friendly PG rating and is directed with a surer hand by the returning Andrew Adamson, this film is noticeably darker in tone, even beginning with the piercing scream of a woman in childbirth.
In line with that mood, “Prince Caspian” provides not one but two elaborate battle set pieces that, taken together, make up a noticeable chunk of its 2-hour-and-18-minute length, pitting the polyglot Narnians, including dwarfs, centaurs, minotaurs, wonderful flying gryphons and intrepid fighting mice, against the endless hoards of an evil group called the Telmarines.
Using a cast and crew of close to 2,000 and some of the best special effects houses in the world (including Weta Digital in New Zealand) to produce more than 1,600 CGI shots, "Prince Caspian" is very much the kind of adventure epic that believes you can never have too much galloping.
Though the film makes sure that nary a drop of blood is shed in those battles -- remember, this is the land of PG -- all that fighting does make for an occasionally off-kilter mix with the kinder, gentler parts of the endeavor. Like a teenager having trouble finding its place in the world, "Prince Caspian" rights itself in the end but doesn't always have an easy time finding its balance.
And though it still features the four Pevensie siblings and their adventures in that alternate universe, "Prince Caspian" brings forth a number of new characters, both human and otherwise. There's Trumpkin, a grumpy Red Dwarf ("The Station Agent's" excellent Peter Dinklage in a yak hair wig), as well as the computer-generated Reepicheep (engagingly voiced by comic Eddie Izzard), the Errol Flynn of sword-fighting mice. And of course there is the dishy Prince Caspian (British stage actor Ben Barnes), he of the omnipresent billboards, the heir to a throne who needs the kind of assistance only the Pevensies can provide.
When Caspian blows on a magic horn to summon them, the Ps are back in wartime London, mired in their tedious everyday lives and dreaming of Narnia. Who wouldn't be? It's no surprise that Lewis' fantasy premise of ordinary kids being kings and queens in another world has massive appeal among feeling-underappreciated young readers.
Narnia, once the Ps get back, has changed a ton -- no surprise, given that 1,300 years in Narnia time have passed in one human year. The castles the kids knew are in ruins, the great Aslan has not been seen in a thousand years and the savagery of the ruling humans called Telmarines has driven the O.N.s (Original Narnians) deep into the woods. Which is where Prince Caspian, the victim of a power grab by the evil Miraz (Italian actor Sergio Castellitto) flees to save his life.
The Pevensies are there to help, all four of them, including still-cute-as-a-button Lucy (Georgie Henley), the brooding Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the ace archer Susan (Anna Popplewell) and High King Peter (William Moseley).
But, just as if Narnia was an adjunct to high school, conflicts break out between Peter and Caspian about who is big man on campus. There is even a youthful kiss for Susan that is so innocent even Miley Cyrus wouldn't have had to apologize for the situation.
The youthfulness of the characters, although essential to the film's appeal, does lead to some awkward moments and some uninspired dialogue from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who frequently fall back on expository lines like "Peter, you may want to see this" and "Peter, you better come quickly." And although Lewis' determination to make Aslan a Christ figure is not as front-and-center as it was in the first film, it is still a factor.
The film's pronounced split between violence and softness notwithstanding, "Prince Caspian" is finally a more polished effort than "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and squarely in the tradition of the kind of teenage movies the Disney organization used to make before teens discovered horror and gore. Things may not happen the same way twice, but they can get awfully close.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." MPAA rating: PG for epic battle action and violence. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. In general release.