"Things never happen the same way twice." Thus boometh Aslan the lion (Liam Neeson), alias the Son of God, popping his computer-generated shaggy head briefly into The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian to pep-talk a bunch of discouraged Brits into fighting the good fight again. As in life, so in sequels. Aslan and other once-key figures — and by extension the Christian ethics of author C.S. Lewis, who would likely have been more disgusted than amused to know that his wildly popular 1950s children's novels have inspired a blooming 21st-century movie franchise — are no more than bit players in the new movie by Andrew Adamson. Not that the first Narnia did shabby business in 2005: $65 million its first weekend, over $700 million worldwide. But part deux comes with a visible mandate to bring home yet more bacon — on the order of, say, the Harry Potter movies — and to attract a slightly older and far more male demographic.
If Prince Caspian falls to Indy 4 at the box office, it won't be for want of trying to out-he-man the competition. Adamson has retooled the old-fashioned, handmade charms of his first Narnia into a schoolboy epic strung together by CGI-laden action sequences featuring men and boys wearing metal while showing mettle. Gone, aside from a fleeting resurrection of flash-frozen evil late in the day, is Tilda Swinton's White Witch, while sweet Pevensie sibling Susan (Anna Popplewell) — she of the bee-stung lips and distaff habit of pouring oil on troubled waters — comes to us improbably refurbished as a girl warrior. A dab hand with the bow and arrows in a tight squeeze, Susan briskly repels the longing glances cast at her by Caspian (Ben Barnes), a deposed heir to the throne who has literally blown the suggestively phallic horn that Susan left behind at the end of part one, to recall her to Narnia. "It would never work," she admonishes the deflated swain. "After all, I am 1,300 years older than you."
Inevitably, character and story suffer. Though Prince Caspian continues the first Narnia's terrified fantasy of foreign occupation that lingered in England just after World War II, there's something both less magical and less human about the new incarnation. This time, the Pevensie children re-enter the world where they once earned the right to be kings and queens not via a musty old cupboard, but via the no-less-smelly London Underground at Trafalgar Square. The Narnia they find, abandoned by Aslan and by them, has fallen into disrepair. Nature itself has shut down, the trees don't walk, the animals don't talk, and all that remains of the brave new kingdom they left behind are some dignified centaurs and a potential resistance force composed of gnarly looking, mildly depressed and fatalistic short people with funny accents — in other words, Englishmen — headed by a grumpy dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and a knightly mouse (Eddie Izzard). The marauders, by contrast, are a virile and vaguely Mediterranean bunch of thugs and politicians with no great respect for the rule of law. The rest of the movie, with perfunctory pit stops for speeches about whether God owes man or vice versa, is armed combat between swarthy humans, buffed centaurs and two boy-Brits quarreling over who has the bigger, er, sword. This all culminates in an entertaining final conflict featuring the biggest, hairiest water sprite you've ever seen helping to restore peace, prosperity and the divine right of kings to Narnia.
Prince Caspian is fairly good fun, and I'm trying to decide whether it was the capable swordplay or Ben Barnes' bedroom eyes that prompted a significant shift in brand loyalty on the part of my ten-year-old, who announced that she's had it with the cute penguins and henceforth will attend only actioners, no matter how bloodthirsty. That may bode well for Prince Caspian's juvie box office. But a wimpy mother who grew up on the Narnia books misses kindly Mr. Tumnus with his skinny pectorals and red scarf, and the cuddly cockney beavers (half-heartedly replaced in the sequel by an overly benign badger and Izzard's intrepid mouse), and the growing-up struggles that played out on both sides of the land of War Drobe in the country of Spare Oom.
Hell, I'd even settle for a little more overt Christianity — though, give or take the washing of self-sacrificing Aslan's wounds by two adoring females, even the first Narnia was about as Christian as The Golden Compass was atheist. As befits a movie whose target global audience is more likely to funnel its worldview through Buddha, Muhammad or Mao than through Jesus, Prince Caspian settles for more tactfully generic hints at a higher authority. A pity that, other than the fights, everything else in the movie is equally bloodless.