At Play in the Forest of the Lion (Theatrical Releases)

May 16, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

While most pundits expected Speed Racer to underperform, I don't think any of them expected the kind of debacle that resulted. For a film that was once touted as one of the summer's big blockbusters to finish third during its opening weekend is unprecedented. And, when one factors in the feeble overseas sales, it becomes hard to see how Warner Brothers can turn a profit on this movie, even if it does brisk business when it hits the home video market. Speed Racer, with its $300 million production cost + advertising budget, is destined to join Ishtar near the top of the all-time theatrical debacles list.

There's only one new release this weekend (as is the case next weekend). Apparently, no one wanted to compete against the second chapter of the Narnia saga, and that represents sound reasoning. While it's easy enough to counter-program an action movie with a chick flick, it's harder to counter-program a family friendly fantasy movie. Anything released against Prince Caspian would probably sink like a rock. There's no doubt it will be this week's Box Office Champion, decisively dethroning Iron Man (not that it will hold the position for long...) The film's tone is darker and it is more battle-oriented than its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This may widen the audience to include teens who were put off by the somewhat juvenile feeling of the first movie. The filmmakers have clearly patterned the look and pace of Prince Caspian after The Lord of the Rings. And, in an attempt to further widen the net, they have replaced the boy Caspian of the book with the hunky man Caspian of the movie. It remains to be seen whether that change will capture a fraction of the female teenage crowd. I enjoyed Prince Caspian more than the earlier installment of the Chronicles, so it's my Pick of the Week.

It's interesting to speculate where the series will go from here. Book Three, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is a slam-dunk. It's already in pre-production and is due to be released in two years. It's bigger and bolder than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, so director Michael Apted has an imposing task in front of him. (Apted has yet to prove he can handle big movies, although he's excellent with smaller ones.) But Dawn Treader is the book where the cast starts to fray. While Caspian, Lucy, and Edmund return, Peter and Susan are left behind. Book Four, The Silver Chair, doesn't feature any of the five principals from Prince Caspian. The main characters are Eustace (who is introduced in Dawn Treader and provides the bridge), Jill, and Caspian's son.

After Book Four, things get interesting. Book Five, The Horse and His Boy, is a stand-alone story set after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and follows a different group of characters (although there are cameos by the Pevensie children during their time in Narnia). Book Six, The Magician's Nephew is a prequel about the creation and early days of Narnia. The Londoners are Digory and Polly, and Digory will eventually grow up to become "The Professor" who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Finally, The Last Battle is a tale that some consider to be unfilmable. While it wraps up the Chronicles, it's a decidedly bizarre story that draws heavily on themes from the Book of Revelation.

Disney is committed to filming the first four books. If the series remains financially successful through The Silver Chair, there are decisions to be made. The most likely fifth movie would be The Magician's Nephew, since viewers need to meet Digory and Polly before they appear in The Last Battle. The screenplay of The Last Battle will likely require major changes from the book in order to make it palatable to a general audience. (One would also assume Susan will be "redeemed" in the movie rather than callously discarded as she is in the book.) The Horse and His Boy could be done as a "bonus" movie after The Last Battle if demand was high for more trips into C.S. Lewis' world. It should also be noted that the previous filmed forays into Narnia, a late-80s British TV endeavor, quit after The Silver Chair. As a result, attempts have never been made to film any of the three latter books.

Ultimately, what will drive Narnia beyond Book #4 is money. As long as there's stuff to film and the series is successful, Disney will keep cranking out product. It's no different from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being split into two pieces or The Hobbit and an unnamed "linking movie" being made. (Interestingly, after the disbanding of New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers now owns the U.S. theatrical distribution rights to both The Lord of the Rings franchise and the Harry Potter franchise.) However, irrespective of how well Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair fare, there's little doubt that Prince Caspian will ignite the box office this weekend.