THE SECOND INSTALLMENT IN the Chronicles of Narnia series has a problem. Unlike the first film, Prince Caspian is, at heart, in the action-adventure genre. It's stacked with stunning set-pieces: the evil Telmarines on one side, the noble centaurs, fauns, and dwarves on the other. But this is not the problem. The problem is that this is a children's movie.
The action sequences lack drama: There is no sense of immediacy as swords clash and arrows whiz through the air; not once does the audience think that the end for the Pevensie children might be near. No blood is shed; no limbs are lost; no real violence is shown. Everyone knows that if things get too bad, the lion-king Aslan will rear his head and set things right. Director Andrew Adamson need not emulate Braveheart's mise en scene, but hewing closer to the line drawn by the Lord of the Rings series would have been nice.
And here we come to another problem. The first of this series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, stands up well on its own. Yes, there were mythical creatures and swordplay, but comparisons to Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classics are unfair and lazy. That film relied as much on familial bonds, emotional interactions, and internecine intrigue as it did on medieval action sequences. Prince Caspian, by contrast, really does feel like Tolkien Lite. It's replete with Lord of the Rings imagery, from a river coming to life (shades of Frodo's flight to Rivendell on the back of Arwen in The Fellowship of the Ring) to trees-wreaking havoc (reminiscent of the Ents in The Two Towers) to a nighttime castle raid (a watered-down version of Towers' battle for Helm's Deep).
Adamson does himself a disservice by packing these sequences in: the only purpose they serve is to invite comparison to far superior works. Taken on its own merits, Prince Caspian might be passable: Set 1,300 years in Narnia time (one year in Earth time) after the end of its predecessor, Prince Caspian opens with Narnia's residents--the talking animals and mythical creatures from the first film--forced into hiding under the reign of the cruel Telmarines. The bearded invaders have captured the kingdom and suffer under the rule of the power-hungry Miraz, uncle of the rightful ruler Prince Caspian and would-be usurper to the throne.
Desperate for help, Caspian magically summons the Pevensie siblings--Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, former kings and queens of the land--to aid in reclaiming the throne. The performances turned in by those children at the heart of this film are neither distracting nor commendable, and Ben Barnes's Prince Caspian is no better (or worse) than his costars. Peter Dinklage shines as the dwarf Trumpkin, although he checks out of character from time to time, relying more on a naturally dour persona than technique.
I admit to being underwhelmed by the special effects. The purely practical creations, like the minotaur, are quite good; but most of the computer-generated work is much less successful. The centaurs are half-man, half-horse, and entirely ridiculous, and the gryphons aren't much better. Another quibble: An odd subplot between Susan and Prince Caspian--some sort of romantic tension--is injected into the tale. I say "some sort" because it's never entirely clear what's going on between the two. Caspian throws her an intriguing glance or two, Susan ignores him for the entire film, and right before the credits roll, they kiss. It was both baffling and entirely unnecessary. If you're going to create romantic tension--and is it entirely necessary in a PG action-adventurer?--at least put some effort into it. Make us care when the lovers separate and their passion goes unfulfilled. Give us some sense of Susan's sacrifice when she heads back to the real world. Or skip it entirely.
In sum, Prince Caspian is a disappointing entry in the series. But hope is not lost: The next film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, features no epic battle sequences and takes more time to explore the magical aspects of Narnia. Here's hoping the series gets back on track, and back to what it does best.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He blogs at Doublethink Online.