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OFF TO THE RACES: Ben Barnes puts the leather to the halter in an action scene from 'The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.'

Caspian Seen

A thousand years have passed, but has anything really changed in Narnia?

By Richard von Busack

WHEN CONSTRUCTING a fantasy franchise, the idea is to go darker the second time around, since the core audience has grown a little older. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is slightly better, if rougher, than its predecessor. It's a scrimmage, with a score of minor injuries, a decapitation or two, and an acceptably well-staged clash by night in a castle courtyard. Narnia is in chains under the rule of the Telmarines, who look and act like Conquistador-era Spaniards. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the heir apparent, ran for his life from his usurping uncle. In the woods, the prince discovers the last remnants of the talking animals and mythical creatures pushed to extinction. Meanwhile, a quartet of English children, familiar to us from the 2005 Narnia film, are sucked through a wormhole in London's Strand station during the Blitz. Though a year has passed in their lives, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia. When the former child-kings and the exiled Caspian meet, they join forces to free the enslaved kingdom.

Despite the interesting shadows, Prince Caspian is still a long and starchy CGI spectacle in which, again, the key element is faith. Director Andrew Adamson changes the focus from the funny-animals version of the Gospel to the later New Testament. Here, the faithful are cornered in a catacomb, carved with WPA-like bas-reliefs of the sacred Aslan. Peter (William Moseley) is tempted by the devil, or at least the devil's icy girlfriend (Tilda Swinton, given a too-brief cameo). Only young Lucy (Georgie Henley) really believes that her fuzzy redeemer liveth, though the others want more in the way of visual proof. She poses on the broken altar where Aslan made his sacrifice. Being as a little child, Lucy is the only one who sees Aslan in the woods and in her dreams. The big cowardly lion shirks the fight before turning up, leo ex machina, to give the heathen soldiers a good baptizing.

The real-life locations and CGI constructions match Mayan ruins, British Columbian rain forests and $500-a-night South Seas beaches. The look is less monotonous than the snowbound studio of the original. The four kids hit their marks and deliver their lines in loud clear voices, but they don't burst through as actors. Some dishevelment or devilry would have helped Anna Popplewell's Susan, some streak of dirt or some element of self-doubt. A few unambiguous looks pass between Caspian and the blossoming girl (Popplewell is a 20-year-old playing someone quite younger). But this doesn't count as romance, which is the Narnia mythos's most serious deficiency.

There will be talk about how great a swashbuckling mouse named Reepicheep is (he's voiced by Eddie Izzard), but he has a bored stock response to people shocked by seeing a talking mouse, and it bored me, too. It would have been a lot more marvelous if the mouse's very name struck terror in the hearts of the soldiers. And Reepicheep pales compared to that high-water mark of CGI talking rodents, Pip the chipmunk in Enchanted. Strange how Adamson made the extremely funny Shrek and then ended up in this solemn franchise, where any humor is as uncertain as a joke told in church.

Movie Times THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (PG; 144 min.), directed by Andrew Adamson, written by Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and starring Ben Barnes and Georgie Henley, plays valleywide.

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