"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (* * * out of four) is an exhilarating fantasy adventure marred only by its length and protracted climactic battle scenes.
Fans of the first Narnia surely will enjoy this sequel, which is better made and more of an epic than 2005's first installment of "Chronicles of Narnia," based on the popular series by C.S. Lewis.
The production design is lavish, the cinematography lovely and the world of woodland creatures beautifully crafted. It's just too bad that the computer-generated bands of warriors grow tedious and conjure memories of "The Lord of the Rings," which managed those hugely choreographed clashes more adeptly than any movie in history.
Setting that aside, the quartet of children at the heart of the "Narnia" tales are engaging, and Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is not only a heartthrob, he's perfect for the role of a noble prince being pushed out of the kingdom of the Telmarines by the power-mad King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto).
The film opens with the four Pevensie children back in England in drab school uniforms. Quickly, they are transported to a gorgeous and wondrous locale. They segue from trudging through a train station to frolicking in a turquoise sea, reminding us that though they are growing up, they still play like children. These enjoyable early scenes quickly lead them back to their royal roles in Narnia and embroil them in an adventure that tests their courage and, given Lewis' religious subtext, their faith.
Shortly after arriving, they save a dwarf who is about to be drowned (Peter Dinklage). His quips provide much of the film's humor. Soon, they are introduced to a cadre of cute talking mice and a loquacious badger. Following on their heels is a host of centaurs and other magical figures. Narnians have been in hiding since being conquered by the Telmarines, and Narnia is much changed. The magic has faded and the trees no longer dance. There is no sign of Aslan, the stately ruling lion and a character meant to symbolize Christ. The children's realization that their last visit was 1,300 years earlier is moving, even poetic.
Soon they join forces with Prince Caspian, and legions of valiant Narnians come out of hiding to find Aslan and reinstate the glory and magic of Narnia, wresting it from the tyranny of King Miraz. For some reason, the Telmarines, descended from pirates, all have Spanish-sounding accents. When Prince Caspian accosts King Miraz, who he learns is responsible for his father's death, you almost expect him to launch into the famous "Princess Bride" speech: "You killed my father. Prepare to die."
When it comes to family films, the imaginative world of "Narnia" is a far more thrilling destination than the frenetic landscape of "Speed Racer."
Though the movie could have ended a few scenes earlier, it is still a journey well worth taking. (Rated PG for epic battle action and violence. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes. Opens in select cities tonight and nationwide Friday.)