The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Buena Vista Pictures), the second installment in the Narnia series based on C.S. Lewis' fantasy novels, bears the same relationship to Part 1, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), as late childhood does to early childhood. It's darker and bleaker and downright grim at times, and that first enchantment of make-believe—the wonder of crawling into a musty wardrobe and finding the door to an alternate world full of talking beavers and hospitable fauns—has given way to the sober onset of adult responsibility. Of course, the responsibilities borne by the Pevensie children—in descending order of age, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley)—go way beyond the usual roster of childhood chores. Instead of emptying the cat-litter box and sorting the recycling, they have to raise an army to save the land of Narnia from centuries of persecution by the Telmarines.
This glowering race of men, all of whom look like Velázquez portraits and talk like Antonio Banderas, operates from a strict policy position of anti-whimsy. For some reason, they have it in for the peaceful Narnians, a ragtag assortment of sexy centaurs, chatty rodents, and curmudgeonly dwarves. The rightful heir to the Telmarine throne, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), on the run from his usurping uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellito), unwittingly summons the Pevensies by blowing on an ancient horn. At once, the children are spirited from a dreary train station in wartime London to the ruins of Cair Paravel castle in Narnia, where 1,300 years have passed since their last visit.
Aided by the valiant mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and the grouchy dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage, barely recognizable under prosthetics and makeup but savagely funny as ever), the Pevensies join the prince in a struggle for the liberation of Narnia and the overthrow of Miraz. (The brief, electrifying reappearance of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch serves only to remind you what a dull villain Miraz makes by comparison.) What follows is somewhere between a gentle coming-of-age picture and a rousing medieval war epic, complete with sword fights, gryphon rides, and faux Carl Orff on the soundtrack. Peter and Caspian square off over battle tactics, Susan becomes a fierce archer while demurely evading Caspian's moony gaze, and Edmund contends with an epic case of middle-child syndrome. Meanwhile, Lucy, the youngest, communicates in dreams with Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the wise lion king/explicit Jesus stand-in who went to his sacrificial death at the end of Part 1.
As in the first movie, it's only at the end, when Aslan raises his fuzzy, maned head to intervene on the side of right, that Prince Caspian shows its cards as a property of Walden Media, the children's entertainment company owned by a Christian billionaire. The final, stunningly staged battle sequence includes a vengeful water spirit whose long, white beard and penchant for foe-smiting recalls the Old Testament God. To be fair, the movie is no more proselytizing than its source material; Lewis was a born-again convert, and the Narnia books were intended as religious parables. But the problem with the (literal) deus ex machina story structure in both the books and the movies is less ideological than narratological. Who cares about the death of a beloved character in a world where (if you know the right people—or lions) death itself is reversible? After the final battle, Lucy anoints a few favored survivors with what amounts to a kind of anti-death serum, so that we get to experience the thrill of near-annihilation without actually having to mourn. Richard Dawkins would have a field day with this vision of God as metaphysical Santa Claus, cozily negating all possibility of real loss (and in fact, when Lucy first received the healing elixir in Part 1, it was a gift from none other than Kris Kringle). But whatever their religious faith or lack of, most viewers know a narrative cop-out when they see one.
They may make for clunky religious parables, but the Narnia books—and so far, the movies based on them—are wonderful as stories about childhood and its loss. Toward the end of Prince Caspian, it becomes clear that the two older children, Peter and Susan, are aging out of Narnia; they've crossed over to the world of grown-ups, and only Edmund and Lucy will be back for the next adventure. (Handily for the franchise, which still has five more installments to go, the books don't feature the Pevensie children throughout, so these actors needn't commit to their roles for the next decade.) The scene in which the kids bid farewell to the dreamlike world that's become more real to them than their own has the emotional power of great children's literature. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, L. Frank Baum's Dorothy, or E.B. White's Fern, the Pevensies live on the border between two realities, the mundane and the magical. For those of us who have long since lost the ability to cross over, it's a pleasure to watch them make that journey.