A potential seven-film dynasty, the "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise so far has preoccupied itself with delivering C.S. Lewis on a blockbuster of a platter. No time for cinematic fluidity or magic: This is business. I realize the first film ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") made almost $745 million worldwide. Well, some things make tremendous profits simply by showing up and getting the trains to run on time.
The second Narnia book to reach the screen, "Prince Caspian," is roughly the same as the first in terms of quality and style. It delivers without much visual dynamism, and with a determined emphasis on combat. In the 1951 novel the climactic battle between the good Narnians and the bad Telmarines lasted a few pages. The film version of the same battle feels like "The Longest Day."
Andrew Adamson, co-director of the first two "Shrek" features, made his feature live-action debut with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and has returned for "Prince Caspian," in which the four Pevensie children return to the magical Narnia, where once they ruled; witnessed the grim crucifixion of Aslan, the godlike lion; and stuck around long enough to see him rise again, according to the Lewis scriptures. Now, 1,300 years later, Narnia has fallen prey to the forces of darkness, personified by King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) and his minions, all of whom apparently come from the land known as Swarthia.
Taking a bite off "Hamlet," Lewis' story sets up Miraz as the Claudius-like usurper of the throne rightfully belonging to Caspian (Ben Barnes), who joins forces with the Pevensies to set the place right and pave the way for a resurgence in Aslan's rule. As you can tell from the poster image, Caspian has quite the flowing locks and Zoolander cheekbones. Who can blame Anna Popplewell's Susan for going a bit fluttery in his presence? She's a dab hand with a bow and arrow, and when she and her siblings take on the Miraz troops, it's foomp-foomp-foomp, body after body after body going down.
Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis portray Trumpkin and Nikabrik, dwarfs and victims of far too many cheap japes aimed in the direction of their height. The scene depicting the introduction and near-drowning of Trumpkin—as well as Susan's archery prowess—captures what's missing from this functional but uninspired project. (Again, the grosses will likely beg to differ.) Adamson hasn't yet figured out how to stage simple action sequences so that they build; over and over, he falls back on indistinct medium shots and choppy, effects-dependent editing rhythms. Some of the effects are nice: The collapsing battlefield has some epic oomph about it. But neither of these first two "Narnia" adventures has really taken off as a movie. I felt the same way about the " Harry Potter" franchise; when Alfonso Cuarson took over for No. 3, "Prisoner of Azkaban," you knew at once you had a director who thought, planned and visualized the story's riches like a director with some dash and a point of view, as opposed to a director who thought, planned and visualized like a producer.
In retrospect I may have been a little hard on the first "Narnia." That one, at least, had Tilda Swinton going to town and back again as the White Witch. (She makes a cameo appearance here.) But without vivid personalities you must make do with a workmanlike ensemble, Eddie Izzard's vocal stylings as the voice of the warrior-badger and the sincere hope that the third "Narnia" outing will leave the first two in the dust.