The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe disappointed many; a solid but unremarkable translation of C.S Lewis's classic children's fantasy. Arguably the best of the Narnia septology (certainly the most famous), the ambivalent reaction didn't bode well for Narnia's aspiration to be a Lord Of The Rings-style juggernaut for the under-10s. Mass unfamiliarity with the Prince Caspian storyline makes it an easier watch, but it still falters without a strong overarching story between films, or decent heroes...
It's been a year since the Pevensie siblings -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skanar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- returned to '40s London from Narnia's alternate reality. Having lived full lives as adult royalty there, the Pevensies are understandably having trouble adjusting to life as ordinary schoolchildren again. Sadly, this interesting idea isn't given a chance to develop beyond a few scenes, as the Pevensies are soon transported back to Narnia while waiting for a tube train...
Time distortion means a staggering 1,300 years have passed in Narnia while the Pevensies have been away, and it's now a very different place: buildings lay in ruins, mythological creatures have gone into hiding, talking beasts have returned to primitive savagery, the trees no longer move, lion deity Aslan (Liam Neeson) vanished a millennia ago, and a race of men called Telemarines now rule the land. One of these Telemarines, the eponymous Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), unwittingly dragged the Pevensies back to Narnia by blowing on Susan's enchanted trumpet, having escaped from his uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellito), who was plotting to murder Caspian to claim the throne, now that his own wife has given birth to a male heir.
Together, Caspian and the Pevensies must unite the Narnians (who are considered ancient myths to the secular Telemarines), and help Caspian reclaim his throne from the despicable Miraz, so he can preside over a new era of peace and prosperity. The film is automatically unbalanced by having five human heroes -- and, while the eponymous Caspian should be the focus, the story unwisely gives plum-voiced Moseley a lot to shoulder. And, let's be honest, the child actors of the Narnia series are practically set decoration. In the first movie, Edmund was tricked into siding with the villain in a rewarding subplot, and Lucy's cheery cuteness was appealing -- but in the sequel, the same actors are hollow and forgettable. Ben Barnes eclipses the four veterans, but is never allowed to grab his self-titled movie by the collar and unshackle himself from these interlopers.
Technically; there's enough to enjoy, but little to astonish. Returning director Andrew Adamson dials down the vibrant aesthetic, opting for a darker colour palette that mirrors Caspian's progression from tween to teen entertainment. This is a devolved, feral Narnia (the Return To Oz chapter of C.S Lewis' saga), but it's a shame we lose the first Narnia's unique vibrancy so quickly. There are a lot of Lord Of The Rings copycats around, and Prince Caspian joins the fan-club like a cowed sheep.
The WETA-produced effects are very good (particularly a mass attack on a castle by various mythological beasties), but you'll never convince me badgers, mice and lions can talk. They don't have the jaw-structure for human speech, so it will always look wrong off the page. Widespread claims that fencing mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) is a highlight are grossly exaggerated, too. He's a mouse with a sword; it's as entertaining as it sounds, but he's no Puss In Boots-style scene-stealer from Adamson's own Shrek 2.
There are some good moments that arrive to perk up Prince Caspian when things become too bland: a captivating cave sequence with Caspian tempted to awaken the White Witch (a riveting Tilda Swinton) from her ice-encased, existential slumber; and a stirring battlefield attack that's a mild retread of the original's battle, but blessed with better choreography and unexpected tactical twists.
Sergio Castellito makes for an excellent villain, but the film does miss the absence of the White Witch. Indeed, the problem with the Narnia books being translated into a movie franchise is their general confusion. These aren't sequential chapters in a pre-planned story (a la Harry Potter); they jump around in chronology, don't always feature the same characters, and lack a primary arch-nemesis. Prince Caspain worked well as a sequel (a key reason why it was chosen, no doubt), but can the scriptwriters keep us invested in more films without the Pevensies as our guides? Well, yes -- they're bland enough to have us relishing some new faces. Sadly, Disney have refused to risk bankrolling another $200 million, so the future of Narnia hangs in the balance.