I haven't read The Chronicles of Narnia since I was a little kid, but what I remember most is how deeply, deeply sad they made me.
Sometimes centuries elapsed between books! They came back to find all their friends were dead forever! Just as I'd get attached to one of the kids, they'd grow too old for Narnia and be exiled to the grim, dull real world for the rest of their lives--and worst of all, I knew that meant the same would happen to every character I liked. When I stopped sobbing long enough to relate these memories to my roommate, he nodded sagely and called it The Chronicles of Narnia: A Study in Loss.
It's powerful stuff, and if my kids weren't too busy earning my blackjack money down in the dirt mines to learn their own names, let alone read books, I'd make sure to buy a mountain of Kleenex at the same time I bought them the Narnia series.
As for the movies, I wouldn't be worried. Prince Caspian is a step in the right direction, but it's still way too thin to risk traumatizing children well into adulthood.
It's only been a year in our world since the Pevensie kids who saved Narnia returned to London, but when they're taken back to that other land, they find that hundreds of years have gone by. Since then, the Narnians have been driven into hiding by the Telmarines, men so thoroughly civilized most of them don't believe in centaurs and dwarves at all.
This leaves them plenty of time to betray and murder each other. The birth of lord Sergio Castellitto's son gives him a lawful heir and a chance to finally assassinate prince Ben Barnes, the Telmarines' rightful ruler. Soldiers chase Barnes into the woods, where he's inadvertently rescued by hostile Narnians.
Castellitto blames the Narnians for Barnes' abduction and prepares his people for war against them. Barnes meets up with Narnia's returned kings and queens to prepare their defense, but with the lion Aslan nowhere to be found, their hopes remain uncertain.
Prince Caspian improves on the uneven pacing of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is always nice to see in a movie 144 minutes long. Really, it clips along nicely, building a clear plot and aided by a dry sense of humor that was nowhere to be found in director/co-writer Andrew Adamson's first entry. Granted, I'm so easily hypnotized by trebuchets, crossbows, and flying monsters that I could watch medieval combat until my skin merged with the theater seat, but even the parts where guys were just yakking at each other--"drama," I think it's called--proceeded far less sloggily than I feared.
Brisk, even. Maybe too much so: the story of heroes banding together against a usurping king is made real enough, but Narnia isn't. Yes, it's crammed to the gills with fantastical creatures, with dwarves and griffins and talking badgers--and few of them seem to be anything more than humans with overactive thyroid glands.
Peter Dinklage's taciturn dwarf, now there's an individual. The chivalrous mouse Reepicheep makes a mark (though even he's disappointingly shallow). The others aren't much more than window dressing, a motley horde of myths without any clear culture or personality of their own.
So the fact Barnes and the Pevensie kids are fighting for their salvation doesn't mean much when their side's no more interesting than the smartly uniformed stormtroopers arrayed against them. Likewise, while I respect Adamson's attempts to work in some of author C.S. Lewis' Christian undertones, they're just not compellingly stated. Is it touchy subject matter? Well Christ yes, but that just leaves all the more room to do something interesting with it. Instead, it feels declawed.
Prince Caspian adds up to both an improvement and a letdown. The plotting and humor are enough to keep it fun as you're watching. There's just too little that will stick with you once the credits start to roll. The inevitable sequel no longer feels like it'll be more punishment than entertainment, but until Narnia emerges from that vast gray kingdom of Generia, it's just another fantasy movie.