Unquestionably the first film sequel with the distinction of taking place 1,300 years after the initial series installment, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” features more clanging swords than all the Robin Hood and Ivanhoe movies put together. Closer to a straight-ahead medieval battle picture than the fantastical, other-worldly journey depicted in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” this new entry is a bit darker, more conventional and more crisply made than its 2005 predecessor, which pulled in $292 million domestically and an amazing $452 million internationally. Given the abundant visual wonders and large action quotient, Disney and Walden Media have no reason to fear B.O. will be far off those marks this time around.
The second of C.S. Lewis’ seven books in the early 1950s series, “Prince Caspian” returns the four Pevensie children to the magical realm more than a millennium, in Narnian terms, after they helped vanquish the White Witch to become kings and queens themselves. That the young actors have grown significantly gives the film a somewhat different, more grounded feel, as does the central presence of the title character, a young man who must fight to claim the throne that’s rightly his.
Returning director Andrew Adamson and his co-screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely overhaul the novel’s structure by opening in Narnia with a childbirth and a related assassination attempt on Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). Forced to flee from his castle, Caspian ventures deep into a forest, where his kind are not meant to go.
By this time in Narnian history, the colorful assortment of creatures and talking animals familiar from the initial story have been banished to the boonies, supplanted in the power structure by the Telmarine race — dark-haired types who speak with an unspecified Mediterranean accent. Suspicious of any Telmarine by nature, the small band of dwarves, centaurs and chatty, furry critters aren’t sure what to make of Caspian, who has been usurped by his venal uncle, Lord Miraz (Sergio Castellitto).
Enter the British kids, who are delighted to depart wartime London but deflated to find the land they remember gone to ruin. In a lovely touch, the Pevensies — eldest Peter (William Moseley), blossoming young woman Susan (Anna Popplewell), teen Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and little Lucy (Georgie Henley) — find themselves commemorated in cave art. The all-powerful lion Aslan proves elusive, although Lucy pursues her own private contacts with him in the forest.
Showing a surer sense of cinematic values in his second live-action venture, “Shrek” vet Adamson stages the surging action with verve and a respect for old-school virtues, rather than tricking it up with modern affectations. Caspian’s flight from the Telmarine castle — a splendidly iconic one built on a rock and approachable only by bridge over a deep ravine — and stealthy return in the dead of night are dramatically filmed in considerable darkness. The reappearance of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch is a riveting surprise but has the unfortunate side effect of making you wish she’d step out of her pane of ice, as she desperately desires, to take a central role here.
When all is said and done, this is a pretty straightforward war film. Once Caspian escapes, Miraz’s men methodically prepare to conquer the wayward Narnians by building a big bridge across the river to the forest. Final combat comes in two stages. First, to avoid carnage on both sides, a winner-takes-all mano a mano is arranged between the vain Miraz and Peter (who for 15 years was High King of Narnia, after all). Scene is tensely and intensely enacted, with some unusual details.
When this doesn’t do the trick, however, the two armies pour it on, with the balance swaying this way and that for nearly a half-hour of CGI-dominated mayhem. Given that there’s no question as to how it will turn out, and that Aslan will eventually intervene at the crucial moment, pic is still able to play a couple visual-effects trump cards that provide something audiences haven’t seen before.
Barnes has the dark, dashing looks that will make teen girls turn out more than they normally would for a battle epic. The undercurrent of attraction between him and the now mature Susan adds a measure of romantic appeal, as does the latter’s evolution into something of an action heroine. The four kids overall have more character and are therefore more interesting to watch than they were before, and Italian actor Castellitto registers strongly with evil that’s implacable but not overplayed.
Required locations featuring forests, mountains and open ground in New Zealand, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic provide an overall feel of timeless, untouched natural surroundings, and the cascade of visual effects are even more impressive than they were the first time around. Production values are tops, and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score vigorously supports the film’s forward movement without becoming overbearing.