Change is the watchword for the second installment of the Narnia series, though fans of the first film will be pleased to reunite with some familiar characters. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian picks up soon after the events depicted in 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Well, sort of. It's a trifle confusing.
For the four Pevensie youngsters, it's been about a year, and though the war goes on, they're now living happily in London. Meanwhile in Narnia, things seem very different.
The film opens there with a dark sequence, set in a huge, gloomy castle where Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is almost murdered by his scheming uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Caspian flees into the nearby woods, where Miraz's army is loath to enter. And no wonder -- once there, Caspian is soon in the clutches of a pair of angry dwarves and a talking badger.
But in his struggles, Caspian blows a magic horn and thus summons the Pevensie gang, who, when in Narnia, are kings and queens and defenders of all that is right and just.
But Narnia is not as they left it: Their house is in ruins; the magical creatures have been decimated by the Telmarines, those human meanies who live in the dark castle; and fear and suspicion prevail. Little Lucy (Georgie Henley), the most magically attuned of the siblings, laments that the trees no longer dance. And here's the shocker: Since they were last in Narnia, 1,300 years have passed.
With Trumpkin the Red Dwarf (Peter Dinklage) acting as emissary, the Pevensies rally the few remaining Narnians, who include centaurs, minotaurs and a sassy mouse named Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard), to defeat the Telmarines and restore Caspian to the throne.
Prince Caspian is directed by Andrew Adamson, who helmed the earlier film adaptation, and it offers the same epic scope, if somewhat less wonder than our first visit. The CGI work is top-notch, seamlessly stitching gorgeous real landscapes into magical worlds, as well as offering such half-actor, half-computer creations as the centaurs. The talking animals are remarkably lifelike (though there's no accounting for mice that walk upright).
The child actors are winsome without being too cloying, though they have less to do in this outing. Peter (William Moseley) spars a bit with Caspian for alpha-male status. Queen (and archer) Susan (Anna Popplewell) continues to shoot straight, and broody Edmund (Skandar Keynes) keeps his chin up. Dinklage is a welcome addition; he nails the film's sharpest lines as the sarcastic Trumpkin.
But at two hours and 20 minutes, this is a long journey, and it's a trip that might have moved at a brisker pace if there were more backstory. I haven't read the books, and like many of you, it's been three years (or possibly 1,300) since I saw the first film, and it took some time to sort out what was going on. Ultimately, Caspian settles into a series of good vs. evil battles, and details like who the Telmarines are and why they hate the Narnians recede behind so many clanking swords. That's comprehensible, but duller.
Caspian is a good deal darker than the first film; its plot is rooted almost entirely in peril and fiercely pitched, protracted battles. This is bloodless, rated-PG warfare, but for the little kids, the heavy-duty sword-fu may be intense. (On the other hand, battle-seasoned adults may grow bored with lengthy combat scenes offering little more drama that simply waiting for actors to fall down and play dead.)
Those looking for deeper subtexts, as proffered in the C.S. Lewis novels from which the film series is adapted, don't have such obvious Christ parallels in this outing. (The faithful are rewarded with a re-appearance of magically powerful lion and adviser Aslan, voiced again by Liam Neeson.) Yet, despite the mystery surrounding the Telmarines, their actions should raise the flags of real-world parallels -- both in their wholesale slaughter of the land's physically different inhabitants, and their creepy army, who in battle all wear the metal visage of their despotic leader.
"You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember," Trumpkin cautions the Pevensie children early on. Viewers should take heed as well.