Maybe I'll be struck by a bolt of lightning for saying this, but Aslan, as movie characters go, is not very interesting.
The lion king of Narnia, biblical implications aside, is kind of a one-dimensional dude. All nobility, all the time. Nice roar, surely, but if we were honest with ourselves, I think we'd admit we had much more fun in the first "Chronicles" movie watching Tilda Swinton riding around in an ice carriage, offering candy to children.
So the fact that mighty Aslan is almost entirely off-camera in the sequel works to the benefit of "Prince Caspian," a movie that offers loads of action, an intriguingly creepy story and a roster of entertaining new characters in his place.
"Caspian" finds the Pevensie children whisked back, once again, to the enchanted land of Narnia, more than a millennium after their previous visit. There is some cleaning up to do. Aslan is gone, their kingdom is in ruins, all of the mythical and woodland creatures have retreated to the forest, and a bigoted, avaricious race of humans (as opposed to the other kind) is encroaching on Narnian land.
Director Andrew Adamson models the Telmarines, visually, on the 16th century Spanish - they have vaguely Mediterranean accents, and sport a conquistador motif that signals the warlike and imperial nature of their kingdom. At least it's warlike under the regency of evil Miraz (Italian actor Sergio Castellitto makes a great villain), who aims to wrest the throne from his nephew, young Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes).
The endangered Caspian flees to the forest, where he persuades suspicious Narnians to join him in a quest to depose his usurper, the payoff being a restoration of their territorial claims and a Pax Narnia.
He forms an alliance with the Pevensie children, led by impetuous Peter (William Moseley). Peter also wants to rally the dispersed, beleagured Narnians in a bid to recapture their former glory.
And there, of course, is the rub. Glory, payback - these are manifestations of human weakness. The alliance prepares for war against the Telmarines, and they wonder why Aslan has deserted them, but Peter's own itch for a fight and Caspian's desire for revenge are the very things that keeps Aslan from endorsing their mission with his presence.
In this way, C.S. Lewis worked a thread of pacifism into "Caspian." The lesson is that one should always endeavor to avoid violence unless, like Lewis, you need a really good third act. And a second. And a prologue.
For an anti-war picture, this one has plenty. Peter, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and archery-mad Susan (Anna Popplewell) lead an assault on the Telmarine castle, then defend what remains of Narnia from an assault by Miraz's giant army.
There are many chase scenes in between, giving Caspian the uptempo pacing of an action serial - the movie's two hours and 20 minutes fly, and even when the pace flags, the sequel offers novelties to pick things up.
The actors playing the Pevensies are older, a little better, and able to add depth to their characters here. New additions help, too: Peter Dinklage plays an ill-tempered Narnian dwarf who adds a needed dose of sarcasm to this earnest franchise. (I wonder if Dinklage is ill-tempered because he's playing a tiny person named Trumpkin.)
The sequel is funnier, too - computer animators create an insanely combative Narnian mouse that wields the world's smallest but deadleast sword. The success of this character reminds of the director's roots - he started on "Shrek." *
Produced by Mark Johnson, Andrew Adamson and Philip Steuer.