A year after their trip to Narnia, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) find themselves drawn back into the magical world again when called upon by the endangered Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). Time has passed further in Narnia, however: 1,300 years have passed and the lands have been invaded by the human-like Telmarines.
The global success of Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe naturally led to the production of a sequel: Prince Caspian, chronologically the second of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels but sequentially the fourth (Walden Media and Walt Disney wisely skipping over the deeply uninteresting The Horse and his Boy). The four Pevensie siblings all return; that one year has passed within the story, but three among the actors is impossible not to notice. Liam Neeson’s enchanted lion Aslan also returns, albeit with a vastly inferior CGI model – the big cat appears to have been blow-dried – and a much smaller role.
With the story set generations after its predecessor, that is pretty much it for returning characters. There are two specific challenges that face Prince Caspian. Firstly, it has to introduce an entirely new supporting cast. Secondly, half of that cast are humans, which is a little harder from which to form a charming children’s narrative than the last film’s array of talking beavers, fauns, and ill-tempered wolves. The end result of this shift in cast is a shift in tone. Prince Caspian is not simply a more mature film that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – it is a palpably darker one in tone. The stakes feel more desperate, and the bloodshed significantly enhanced. With the film released in a cinema three years after its predecessor, the ten year-olds who adored Wardrobe would have likely appreciated that additional complexity at 13. Watched one straight after the other on home video, and it winds up a little jarring at first.
Once the jump in tone settles down, Prince Caspian reveals itself to be a surprisingly satisfying sequel. The original novel lacks any of the iconic moments or imagery of Wardrobe, but the story in the film feels much more accomplished. It allows for the Pevensie kids to develop and mature, and all four deliver stronger performances the second time around. As Caspian, Ben Barnes struggles a little with a faux-Spanish accent, but ultimately acquits himself well. As his traitorous uncle King Miraz, Italian actor Sergio Castellito exudes a wonderful sense of menace and villainy.
Peter Dinklage is excellent as the dwarf Trumpkin, and his weary cynicism provides much of the film’s best humour. It is the only time in his career that Dinklage has played an elf, dwarf, or suchlike, and he has been gifted with a beautifully well-rounded part. Warwick Davis, by contrast, has made his entire career out of fantasy heroes and creatures. Here he plays the Bleak swarf Nikabrik from underneath a surprising amount of prosthetic make-up. He looks sensational, and it is a role quite distinct from Davis’ usual work. It’s one of the best things he has done.
The design work is, as it was in Wardrobe, absolutely impeccable. Stylistically it feels like a distinct piece with its own particular take on the Narnia universe. It is a little less bright and fanciful, and certainly does not grab the audience’s attention as vividly as the first film, but as the story unfolds and the characters find themselves in increasing peril, its own charm emerges. This is almost certainly the strongest film of the franchise; anyone that skipped it or abandoned it early will likely be rewarded by giving it a second chance.