Considerably darker and more mature than its predecessor, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian aims for an older audience than the twinkly winter’s tale that was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But with even more epic battles against large armies and talk of true heirs to the throne, Caspian feels like another trip to Middle Earth, absent the pulsing heartbeat that made Peter Jackson’s films so glorious. Director Andrew Adamson and his committed cast aim for the same epic grandeur, and come up with a paler imitation that still manages to pack a healthy number of thrills.

Returning to Narnia are the Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and little Lucy (Georgie Henley). A year has passed since they returned to England through the wardrobe, and with the memory of ruling as kings and queens of Narnia still fresh, they dread heading off to boarding school. Luckily, they don’t have to—the four are whisked away from the subway platform to land on an abandoned beach, which they soon discover was once their castle, Cair Paravel. Some 1,300 years have passed since they left Narnia, and the kingdom, like their castle, has changed considerably.

Ruling the country now are the Telmarines, a vaguely Mediterranean bunch descended from pirates who took over Narnia, sending the talking animals and dwarves to exile in the forest and protecting the country for humans only. Up in the castle there’s family drama of Hamlet proportions going on—Lord Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) has killed his brother, the King, and taken over the throne in the stead of young Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). When Miraz’s wife gives birth to a son, though, Caspian must escape certain death in the cover of darkness, and takes refuge in the forest, where the Telmarines fear to go.

It turns out that Caspian is the one who summoned the Pevensies, by blowing Susan’s enchanted horn. Soon the Pevensies and Caspian have met up, and despite initial jealousy between former king Peter and future king Caspian, they team up to dethrone Miraz and make the country safe for Narnians again. They are joined by a whole host of magical creatures, among them the disgruntled dwarves Nikabrik (Warwick Davis) and Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), the gallant mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and eventually, the noble lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).

Adamson, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus wrote a screenplay that diverges from the slim novel in key ways, mostly to assign human flaws to Peter, Caspian and other key characters. It’s a great choice. Not only is the added midnight raid on the Telmarine castle a great visual spectacle, it’s a key mistake on Peter’s part that adds dimensions to his boy-king character. And when Caspian is tempted to overcome his uncle by reanimating the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), it’s a potent reminder of the dangers and temptations of power, as well as a nice return visit from Swinton.

The CGI, as with the first film, is breathtaking, particularly in those battle sequences and with the late-breaking character of the River God. The all-CG characters fare a bit worse. Reepicheep, for all the personality imbued in him by Izzard, never quite takes shape, and the same goes for Trufflehunter the badger and other key characters. But the human Pevensies and Caspian, who are the real heart of the story anyway, make up for what the CGI lacks. Each of the children from the first film has grown confidently into these roles, and Barnes, affecting a strange Spanish accent, is rugged and noble, though maybe a bit bland as Caspian.

Everyone involved in Prince Caspian has put remarkable effort into turning a distinctly un-cinematic story into a big-screen event, and for Narnia lovers and fantasy addicts of all ages, Caspian will be a treat. Parents of young children may fret over the increased violence and a few truly harrowing moments, but older fans will be happy to find higher stakes and greater humanity than in the first glossy edition. Narnia may never escape comparisons to Middle Earth, but it’s on its way to creating its own satisfying vision of a fantasy world.