(CNN) -- "You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember," the dwarf Trumpkin cautions the Pevensie children -- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy -- on their return visit to the magical land they'd visited in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Ben Barnes plays the title character in "Prince Caspian."
Fair warning. "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" is, indeed, a darker and more violent episode than "Wardrobe," the first film in the series based on the C.S. Lewis novels.
It is a year later -- in the Pevensies' time. In Narnia, centuries have passed. The castle at Cair Paravel lies in ruins. The trees no longer dance, the bears don't talk, and the Old Narnians hide out in the woods, praying that one day they will recover their land from the godless, tyrannical Telmarines.
Lewis' book was one of the weaker entries in the series. But the movie is a marked improvement on the novel and an altogether more robust, confident enterprise than director Andrew Adamson's previous effort.
Even so, it can't entirely dispel the aura of Tolkien-in-short-trousers that permeates Narnia, along with that quaint English sense of sovereign entitlement: the blithe conviction that paradise could be reclaimed, if only everyone understood the rules of cricket. At any moment you half expect someone to call a break for tea and crumpets.
That's part of Narnia's charm, of course, but also a real challenge for filmmakers addressing a very different audience than the readership Lewis had in mind. iReport.com: What did you think of "Prince Caspian?"
So the film includes two lengthy battle sequences to spice things up. The first is an invention of Adamson and his writing partners, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely ("You Kill Me"), the second a significant elaboration on a mere two pages in the book. They both provide some welcome energy to the film.
Caspian himself enjoys a more advanced role. Played by 26-year-old British newcomer Ben Barnes as a kind of Mediterranean, pretty-boy Hamlet, the prince escapes a plot by his uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) -- who has usurped his throne -- and falls in with a rag-tag band of talking badgers, valiant mice, dwarves, minotaurs, griffins and centaurs.
With the return of the four Kings and Queens of yore, Caspian cedes leadership to "Peter the Magnificent." But pride and tension ensure that a pre-emptive strike on the Telmarine court is a fiasco. ("Peter the Impetuous" might be a more fitting moniker.) None of this is in Lewis, but the thwarted assault is the most exciting set piece in the picture and would not look out of place beside Peter Jackson's work in "Lord of the Rings."
The bloodshed might have been averted if only the boys had listened to faithful little Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest and the purest of Aslan's disciples (and also the pick of the child stars). In this mythology, the shorter you are, the nobler you're likely to prove.
And the more enjoyable you are in the film. Case in point: The two most colorful scene-stealers are Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse (voiced with gusto by Eddie Izzard), and Peter Dinklage's grumpy Trumpkin, patronizingly nicknamed "Dear Little Friend" by the Pevensies, or "DLF" for short.
Live-action and digital effects are state of the art -- there's a nice detail when a distracted centaur kid is pulled up to attention by his mom -- although at one point during the climactic battle, Caspian's strategy seems to involve bringing the roof down on the heads of his own cavalry. (Not a tactic they teach at West Point.) A few minutes later, we're treated to the sorry spectacle of bullish minotaurs in retreat, the pathos all the greater because they're so obviously grown men in costume.
But these are minor distractions. "The Chronicles of Narnia" may lack the visual distinction of the great fantasy film series such as "Rings," but at least "Prince Caspian" is a step in the right direction. Adamson barrels the action along in an even-handed manner that should keep most of the family happy. And the film sets a fair wind for "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," coming to a theater near you in 2010.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" is rated PG and runs 140 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
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