You probably know by now that Walt Disney Pictures on Dec. 24 withdrew from its distribution deal with Walden Media, maker of the two Chronicles of Narnia films to date, 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and 2008’s sequel, Prince Caspian.
But what wasn’t mentioned in last week’s column by the returned Jason Waguespack is that the third planned film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s classic series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is back in action. Walden Media struck up a deal with 20th Century Fox, revealed by Variety and other publications on Jan. 28. So, Lord willing, the film will release Christmas 2010, with the original cast and much of the crew, and a new director (as planned before, anyway) — Michael Apted (Amazing Grace) will replace Andrew Adamson.
Much has been written and discussed about the reasons why Disney backed out of the film franchise. Yes, it can be traced back to Prince Caspian’s lack of huge blockbuster status in theaters. Still, though, the film remains on the list of top-20 2008 earners. It was just not as huge a blockbuster as the corporate heads had hoped, especially considering the first film’s higher domestic and international numbers.
For that lack of success, we have multiple reasons to consider.
1. The film’s release date and marketing difficulties
Prince Caspian, many have noted, released May 16, the height of summer blockbuster season, just before the much-hyped fourth Indiana Jones film and just after the surprise hit Iron Man.
However, the first Narnia film released in Christmas 2005 and its only competition was Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which released the next weekend. Narnia lost some ground because of the Lord of the Rings director’s anticipated remake, but eventually audiences seemed to agree with some critics that the film was a long, drawn-out, very expensive flick that didn’t have as much commercial appeal as Rings. Therefore, Narnia ultimately beat Kong that month.
Marketing for PC proved to be a bit stranger than that of LWW as well. Trailers for the first film presented this as “C.S. Lewis’s beloved masterpiece,” crediting the author and certain viewers would recognize the title and familiar story. The audience was more distinct for LWW: children, families, and adults who had grown up with the books and would appreciate a film adaptation.
However, PC’s marketing was very vague. “All that you know is about to change” was such an odd travesty of a promotional tag. The story wasn’t stressed as much as the visuals — a difficult-to-market blend of serious battles (older audiences?) and friendly talking animals (younger audiences?). Meanwhile, as Box Office Mojo noted, “the Prince Caspian character took center stage with no context or reason to care shown for those who haven’t read the books.” As for the Pevensies and Aslan, they were in the giant promo posters’ background.
2. The book’s relative obscurity
As a book, Prince Caspian itself ranks in the “lesser liked” category of the Chronicles of Narnia, if readers are forced to choose. I suppose I would place it there myself if compelled to make a choice, below my top three favorites (The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle) and middle-three favorites (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Silver Chair, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
By virtue of being the first in the series, and a fantasy “groundbreaker” for its time, LWW was more easily recognized. Its story elements — a faun in the snow, a hundred-year winter, the Christlike death and resurrection of Aslan — are more unique.
Furthermore, in many ways, the PC book follows LWW in plot and pacing. And though the film took liberties with the storyline (more on this later), it was not able to make itself distinct.
3. Walden’s and the C.S. Lewis estate’s new hopes for release dates and marketing
NarniaWeb members “Rilian” and “GlumPuddle” (who himself visited the set of Prince Caspian, discussed in a Jan. 18 podcast what they knew or had guessed about Walden Media’s reaction to the second film’s lackluster success. Very likely, both the filmmakers and the C.S. Lewis estate (producer Douglas Gresham is Lewis’s stepson) had seen the flaws with Disney’s summer release for PC, as opposed to the Christmas-season release of LWW, and wanted to return to the holiday-release framework for Voyage.
However, if Disney kept the franchise, the company would probably insist on giving Voyage another summer release because of its seafaring themes, the podcasters proposed. Perhaps Walden was inflexible in its wishes, and that, along with continuing differences with adaptation and marketing strategies, resulted in a break between the two parties. Disney, as a larger and more powerful company, would understandably want more control over such decisions.
Continuing next week, I hope to cover more reasons and also offer my hopes for the forthcoming Voyage film, speaking from some experience as a moderator on the NarniaWeb forum. Here’s hoping Fox, who has distributed many other Walden films, will be able to overcome PC’s shortcomings and deliver audiences a much better Dawn Treader than the Disney/Walden pairing could have achieved.
Moreover, creators of other Christian fantasy and sci-fi can take note of what the films did right and what they didn’t — and what makes a truly great work of speculative-faith fiction.