The Narnia films, based on the C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series, share a highbrow imprimatur with box office juggernauts Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings that suggests they are higher-quality fare than most films for young audiences. For one thing, they are adapted from books (and not just kids' books, but literature and, even better, British literature); they are live-action, include gorgeous scenery, and depict their young, virtuous protagonists as serious, intelligent beings who speak in refined locutions. There's no swearing, no bathroom humor. But underneath these genteel trappings, the narratives of the films more closely resemble the sequential, repetitive structure of videogames than a traditional plot arc. "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the second installment in the series (following 2005's box office smash "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"), efficiently reintroduces the four Pevensie children, sets in motion a struggle for control of Narnia, and lets the combatants get down to the business of beating each other senseless in a series of escalating battles that constitute the meat of the movie. There's a dull, bombastic sameness to the last two-thirds of "Prince Caspian," as the characters progress from battle to battle, like players ascending the levels of "Donkey Kong."
The movie opens in Narnia, which is now ruled by evil King Miraz, leader of the Telmarines, a race that banished the Narnians to the forest. When Miraz's wife gives birth to a son, Miraz's nephew Prince Caspian, who is the rightful heir to the throne, must flee the castle. Meanwhile, back in England our school-aged protagonists from the first film, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, are sucked through a Harry Potter-esque time portal in the underground and deposited back in Narnia, which has aged 1,300 years since their last visit. Aslan, the mythic lion who guided the Pevensie children during their first visit, is nowhere to be found.
This first part of the movie has a mournful, lugubrious air; Lucy, in particular, can't get over how much Narnia has changed, and she refuses to accept the loss of her beloved lion. Director Andrew Adamson conveys the children's grief with atmospherically somber shots, showing the scenery as both stunning and foreboding. In one scene Lucy wakes in a misty forest and wanders off in search of Aslan. Adamson's camera makes the trees seem to whisper the way—so much so that a special effect of swirling petals beckoning Lucy forward is clumsily excessive. When Lucy wakes to discover that her early morning walk was just a dream, the light sharpens to reveal that she's back in reality—as real as Narnia can be, that is. It's a nice, subtle visual touch for a film that will soon be overwhelmed by computer-generated fakery.
Soon enough the Pevensies meet up with Caspian and, along with the Narnians, pledge to help him claim the throne and free the Narnians from Telmarine rule. Newcomer Ben Barnes, as Caspian, seems cast to bring some Orlando Bloom-style heat to the story—and teenage girls to the theaters—but he plays Caspian as too hesitant to be an effective foil to Peter's headstrong leadership. Like the Pevensie children, Caspian is an orphan—he lost his father, the king, as a baby, while the Pevensies have been separated from their mother by World War II. One message of the film is that adults, whether "sons of Adam" like King Miraz or fantastical creatures like the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, who makes a welcome cameo) are not to be trusted, with the exception of Aslan, the ultimate absentee father figure. But Caspian and the Pevensies never gel as an alternative family unit. The characters are often separated from each other, left to fight their battles alone.
As for those battles, they are your standard CGI extravaganzas: long, loud, and violent, though with little actual blood. Adamson seems to prefer excess to invention, so there are lots of shots of multitudes of armor-clad warriors racing down hillsides, and Narnian minotaurs and centaurs galloping full speed into the breach. The more obvious special effects are downright hokey, such as a weird swirling water creature who looks like something out of a toilet cleaner commercial. As the outcome of all the sword-flinging and catapult-launching is never in question, it's hard to stay engaged with the movie once the fighting begins. Filming for the next installment in the Narnia franchise is set to begin this fall, and it's a good bet the third film will be even more action-heavy, and dramatically flat, than "Prince Caspian." It's a shame, because under all the gimmickry and effects, there's a nice story to tell—as anyone who has read the books knows.