Battle royal
'Prince Caspian' darker second chapter in Narnia story

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (PG)

Two and a half stars out of four

With no pressure to over perform, a built-in, faith-based audience and mostly positive reviews, the first "Narnia" movie ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") shattered all expectations and took in more than $700 million worldwide at the box office.

As with most second installments of planned trilogies, "Prince Caspian" will have a much tougher road and more to prove. On the upside, it takes a lot of chances. Far darker than its predecessor, "Caspian" is spiritually akin to "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Two Towers," two other second-chapter classics that skirted the dreaded sophomore slump. The newly added characters are all stand outs and deliver some much-needed comic relief without being too cute.

For those who loved the first installment and are not familiar with the C.S. Lewis books on which the movies are based, "Caspian" could be a shocking letdown. The religious overtones are practically non-existent, the story is slightly weaker and the nearly two-hour running length will test the endurance of most family audiences. Like last week's "Speed Racer," the "PG" rating here is totally inappropriate. There are hundreds of on-screen deaths and while not bloody, they are violent. This is not a movie for pre-teen children.

The premise is superb. Although they've only been away for a year, the four principals return to the land of Narnia 13 centuries after they left. They are now legends and are regarded by the inhabitants as saviors. The assorted dwarves, fairies and mutant woodland creatures now live like wanted criminals, oppressed by Castilian-like humans known as the "Telmarines." One of them is Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the thrown who has been ousted by his evil, power-hungry Uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto).

After issues of paranoia and mutual distrust have been addressed and resolved, Caspian, the Narnians and the quartet of young English royal siblings band together to squelch Miraz's superior forces. Instead of defending their underground tomb, the underdogs stealthily attack Miraz's castle and almost emerge victorious. This leads to an impressive final battlefield showdown which is as compelling and well-choreographed as any war sequence ever filmed. It is the undisputed highlight of the movie.

Those looking for the glorious return of the majestic Lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) and the treacherous White Witch (Tilda Swinton) will be sorely disappointed. The former is on screen for less than 15 minutes and the latter appears in only one short, fleeting scene. Picking up their slack are Eddie Izzard who voices a swashbuckling mouse reminiscent of the Puss-in-Boots character from the "Shrek" franchise and Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin, a dwarf who is the spitting image of Woody Harrelson.

"Prince Caspian" is far from a bust and provides a worthy narrative bridge to "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the third installment due out in 2010. The darker material and presence of future heartthrob Barnes could also go far in attracting the lucrative female teen demographic, most of whom had no interest in seeing the first installment. The same could also be said for fan-boy males who will surely revel in the video game-flavored battle scenes.

Disney and returning director Andrew Adamson are rolling the dice by possibly alienating their formidable family base, but in the process could land an entirely new, equally fervent new audience. (Disney)