A less than fantastic voyage

Devoid of tension, Narnia is a much duller place the second time around

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Roughly three years pass in Narnia for every day of human time, which makes it scarcely worth the trouble waiting for a cheque to clear over there. It is now two and a half years since the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but for anyone residing in C S Lewis's fantastical land, that translates as more than 2,700 years, which is an awfully long time to wait for a sequel, particularly one as unremarkable as Prince Caspian.

The Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - rarely vent their feelings of adolescent turmoil with anything more than a haughty frown (the Famous Five look like joyriding glue fiends next to this lot), but even they can't hide their disappointment at what has befallen Narnia since their last visit. Honestly, you leave a magical land for a few thousand years and it all goes to pot. "You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember," warns the dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), but I'd say the trend has been largely towards the conventional.

Electricity still hasn't been invented, and news of the wonders of waxing has yet to reach the woolly-legged centaurs. There is now an excess of talking animals, including a badger who speaks in Ken Stott's grumpypants growl, and a dandyish, cutlass-wielding mouse (Eddie Izzard). The Pevensies are summoned back to overthrow a pointy-bearded tyrant, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who has tried to murder his stepson, the rightful heir, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), possibly for the crime of having an unconvincing Spanish lisp.

What is clear from the prologue, in which Prince Caspian emerges from the jaws of death with his flawless side-parting intact, is that the real clash will be between him and the incumbent heart-throb, Peter, who until now has had pin-up rights for the Narnia series in the bag. In a Freudian moment that even pre-schoolers will grasp, the lads cross blades before they've been introduced. Once this macho hostility subsides they're still trying to out-pout each other at every opportunity. There's so little subtext or shading in the film that it is actually a relief to have this hormonal jousting to spice things up. Caspian plays the trump card by making goo-goo eyes at Susan - and everybody knows you can't do much more to annoy a chap than date his sister. Soon, Caspian and Susan are exchanging that look which across the ages has come to mean: "Are you on MSN?" and the film picks up briefly with a buzz of chaste infatuation.

Not that it can compete with Tilda Swinton as the White Witch, proffering her naughty box of Turkish delight in the first film. Swinton turns up in a cameo here, encased in ice like that unidentifiable item that we all have at the back of our freezers, but her charisma is sorely missed. Aslan the messianic lion (Liam Neeson) appears fleetingly, the Christian allegory being applied by the cupful rather than the bucketload this time around, but proper film-star presence is in short supply; it's rather as if members of the Children's Film Foundation had been left to their own devices on the set of Lord of the Rings.

Where the picture comes alive is in its most intimate details. There's a sweet touch in the early scenes, set in wartime London, when Peter gets in a fight with schoolmates because he can't adjust to not being king of Narnia, as he was at the end of the last picture. I could have done with less armour-clanging battles and more of these poignant insights into how the Pevensies cope with the downtime between adventures, particularly as the wardrobe-less Prince Caspian is starved of that tension between Narnia and our world, which flared up whenever the children commuted between parallel lands in the first film.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was far from perfect, but at least it drew on the fruitful interplay between the parochial and the fantastic. Aside from one spectacular effect here, in which the battlefield over which soldiers are advancing is pulled from beneath their feet, Prince Caspian is in real danger of committing the cardinal sin in the fantasy genre of failing to be extraordinary.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug