Two and a half years ago, the world was treated to a supremely adequate adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe plagued by both a screenplay so helplessly faithful to the source material that it seriously raised the question of what need the movie satisfied at all, and the barbarically efficient, totally impersonal direction of Andrew Adamson, the imagination-starved helmsman of Shrek and Shrek 2.

The inevitable sequel has now come out, and it's a strange thing: though The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian boasts a screenplay that drifts significantly far from the novel, and though Adamson has matured quite a bit as a visual artist (this largely means that he has gotten much better at aping Peter Jackson's style from The Lord of the Rings), the new film doesn't feel any better than its predecessor. Indeed, I'd almost like to claim that it's a little bit worse, lacking as it does the secret weapon that made TL,TW,TW the next best thing to essential viewing: Tilda Swinton's earth-stopping turn as that film's villainous White Witch. As anyone who has seen the trailer knows, Swinton actually swings by for a cameo that wasn't in Lewis's original, and damn me if in her half-dozen lines she doesn't manage to just about steal this film, too.

At any rate, the new film isn't particularly oozing with great performances lined up to wash the memory of Swinton from our minds: the marvelous character actor Peter Dinklage starts out promising, but his role has deteriorated into "the dwarf who always looks very sad" by the middle point of the film; Eddie Izzard voices a swashbuckling mouse and does it with great, Izzard-like aplomb, but there simply isn't enough of him in the movie. 12-year-old Georgie Henley, still the finest actor of the four lead characters, is shuttled offscreen for most of the second half, and when she's around it's like as not that she's just voicing the movie's leaden quasi-theological subtext (though I must give Prince Caspian props for explaining to me at last what the story's religious meaning was: it's about faith!* And when your movie is less subtle than C.S. Lewis's apologetics, you need to figure out where exactly you went wrong, and fix it).

Meanwhile, the prince of the title is played by the much-too-old Ben Barnes, a silky-voiced, silky-locked pretty young thing whose charisma could be held in a teacup with plenty of room left over for the thimble holding his acting talent. I'd be rash to say that the casting of Barnes is the single greatest strike against the film - Adamson's directing is far too shaky to make that kind of claim - but in a film called Prince Caspian, it does not do for Prince Caspian to suck all the air out of every scene he wanders into.

Caspian is the heir (this is the plot recap part, by the way) to a kingdom that has conquered the magical land of Narnia last scene as an Edenic paradise of talking animals and mythic creatures, in the 1300 years that have passed since the four kids from TL,TW,TW accidentally fell back to England in the 1940s. Except, to them, it has only been one year, and when applied phlebotinum brings them back to Narnia, they are all shocked that their beloved country has been abandoned by the Christ-like lion Aslan, so they all have CRISES OF FAITH, except for the youngest, Lucy, who is PURE OF HEART and NEVER FALTERS IN HER BELIEF THAT A HIGHER POWER WILL SAVE THEM. He does, but only after several CGI beasties and human extras die in a couple protracted battle sequences that have increased, dramatically, the level of violence permissible in a PG-rated movie. I look forward to about ten years in the future, when decapitations can be seen in any old children's cartoon, and a woman in a T-shirt and panties is an automatic "R".

As long as there have been two Narnia books, it has been clear that Prince Caspian wasn't one-half the story that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was, but I salute screenwriters Adamson, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely for adding things that increase the story's dramatic possibilities, the number of possible action setpieces, and our time spent watching Tilda Swinton. I haven't seen the first film since December, 2005, but my sense is that it was a good deal cutesier than the new one, and I salute them for that as well. There's still a lot of meandering in the first third of the story before everyone gets together in one place and cool shit goes down, but longer films have been made with less plot, and the movie has just enough of that old-timey grand epic feel for its 144 minutes to breeze by like two and a quarter hours.

But even as a sword-clanging entertainment, Prince Caspian falls short of the high but not insurmountable bar set for the genre. The fault, as it was with TL,TW,TW is ultimately Adamson's; as he proved in that movie, he has no real facility with large-scale battle sequences, and in this film, where such events are given much more weight, that means a lot more time spent watching a fitful camera that never has quite the angle we'd like, and plays a lot of those stupid "follow the arrow" tricks so beloved by action directors in the computer age. I don't think it's at all coincidental that the very best action moment in the film is a one-on-one combat scene; at least a couple of shots there were genuinely gripping. Other than that, this is all textbook stuff: lots of crane shots, lots of meaningful close-ups and their bastard wide-screen cousin, the meaningful medium shot. I can't help but describe it, once again, as a second-generation copy of Jackson's work in The Lord of the Rings, only without the baleful desaturation that was surely that trilogy's most interesting visual characteristic.

It is easy to forgive this as good enough for a summer movie, when what we want are wide screens, cool drinks and lots of snazzy effects, but given the choice between a smart summer movie and a bland one, I know which one I'd always pick. That doesn't even take into account the rather moth-eaten look to much of Prince Caspian's CGI, particularly disheartening after the eye-popping wonders of the first film. Everything seems a little less flexible and organic here, nowhere more easily demonstrated than in the character of Aslan: while he was a marvel of fur and musculature in 2005, everything but his face looks sort of like shimmering molded plastic now. That's to say nothing of the other animated characters, ranging from the out-of-place cartooniness of the talking mice to the unspeakable awfulness of the blob of brushed metal calling itself a badger.

On the other hand, there is a fine story being told here, and enough lovely scenery to make it all go by quick and neat. It's not a fantasy film that your grandchildren will look on with quickened hearts and misty eyes, but I don't suppose it's really very damaging outside of that.

Reviews in this series
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Adamson, 2005)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Adamson, 2008)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Apted, 2010)