LOS ANGELES — Moviegoers will see all sorts of miracles in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, including a painting that springs to life, a star that becomes incarnate, and a book that conjures spells. The companies behind the latest big-screen adaptation from C.S. Lewis' classic book series hope the film will perform a different kind of miracle: revive a stalled franchise.
Producers Walden Media and 20th Century Fox think the third Narnia picture, which opens Friday, can reclaim the fans who embraced 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but who were turned off by the darker 2008 sequel Prince Caspian, whose comparatively poor performance raised serious doubts about the series' future.
"We strayed from our core audience," said Mark Johnson, who has produced all three Narnia movies. In trying — and largely failing — to attract more teens, he said, the Prince Caspian movie might have alienated families.
The producers hope the 3-D Dawn Treader will win them back.
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Hollywood studios always are looking for a repeatable movie series, such as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, that can sell millions of tickets and DVDs while spawning theme park attractions and merchandise sales. At first, Narnia appeared to be the next such breakout, when the first film grossed $745 million worldwide. But the second installment, which cost much more than its predecessor, generated 43 percent less at the box office.
Then, in a highly unusual move, Walt Disney Studios, which co-financed and released the first two Narnia movies, walked away from the series, citing financial and creative concerns.
Billionaire investor Philip Anschutz, whose film company Walden Media is committed to producing traditional family entertainment and controls the movie rights to all seven Narnia novels, wasn't about to abandon the allegorical Christian books that appeal to faith-based and general audiences alike. Walden joined forces with Fox, and they substantially downsized the Dawn Treader production budget and revised its story to emphasize the fantasy and adventure elements and the lighter tone that distinguished the first blockbuster.
"This franchise is obviously very important to us," said David Weil, chief executive of Walden parent Anschutz Film Group. "This is a story of temptation, transformation, redemption and grace in a way that you are immersed in a world of magic and wonder. It's an all-audience movie and a return to the first one."
The story for Dawn Treader, which is the name of Caspian's sailing ship, centers on the adventures of siblings Edmund and Lucy Pevensie and their ill-tempered cousin, Eustace. The trio are transported back to the mythical land of Narnia, where they join Caspian on a voyage to mysterious islands. Along their journey, the three children must resist temptation, including pride, envy and greed, as they confront a variety of creatures, culminating in an epic battle against a massive sea serpent.
Unlike Prince Caspian, which was a more serious and warlike drama, Dawn Treader, directed by Michael Apted, is intended to be accessible to a wider swath of ticket buyers. Caspian, played by British heartthrob Ben Barnes, has mysteriously lost his exotic accent, and the talking mouse Reepicheep is now more of a comic foil.
"We really wanted to make it light and fantastical," said Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 division oversaw the film with Walden.
At the same time, Fox and Walden rewrote the new film's economics to improve its chances for profitability.
Walden never earned a profit on its sizable investment in Prince Caspian.
Prince Caspian was shot in New Zealand, England, the Czech Republic and Poland over 140 days and cost $240 million. Dawn Treader, on the other hand, cost about $155 million and was filmed almost exclusively in Australia in 90 days, mostly on sound stages rather than costlier far-flung locations.
And rather than shooting on the ocean, which can be costly, the crew built a 140-foot, 125-ton vessel costing $2.7 million that was suspended over the Coral Sea on a motion-controlled device to simulate high-seas sailing. Visual effects for Prince Caspian cost $100 million; the effects budget for Dawn Treader was less than half that.
Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said a long preproduction schedule ensured that costs could be contained before cameras rolled. He said additional savings were realized by favorable currency rates during last year's production and with tax credits from Australia's Queensland state and Britain, where the film was edited.
Fox and Walden felt strongly that returning Narnia to its original December release date (Prince Caspian was released in May) also would boost the film's box-office prospects since it is the season when families go to the movies together. That said, Narnia will be competing for those family dollars with several other event movies including the latest Harry Potter release and the 3-D animated Tangled, along with two other 3-D spectacles opening a week later, Disney's sequel Tron: Legacy and Warner Bros.' adventure comedy Yogi Bear.
Fox and Walden will spend about $100 million to market Dawn Treader around the world. That could be money well spent: Each of the previous Narnia movies generated more than 60 percent of their ticket sales overseas.
The companies are targeting through early screenings the same faith-based fans who helped make The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a blockbuster. "We're reaching out to faith contingencies around the world where C.S. Lewis' works are well known and resonate strongly," Weil said.
Rothman said Fox thinks Dawn Treader is not a single movie but a relaunch of a movie series that has long-term potential. In fact, the News Corp.-owned studio and Walden are talking about the next potential Narnia movie, probably The Silver Chair.