* Action-packed third Narnia film hits theatres from Dec. 2
* Box office uncertainty after Prince Caspian disappoints
* Twentieth Century Fox replaces Disney as co-producer
By Mike Collett-White
LONDON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - The third Narnia film involves an epic sea voyage, but after its predecessor underperformed at the box office and Disney decided to ditch the franchise, it looks like sink or swim time for the series.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” has its world premiere in London on Tuesday before Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and hits cinemas in some countries from Dec. 2 and on Dec. 10 in the key U.S. market.
Available in 2D and 3D, new co-producer Twentieth Century Fox will have a close eye on how the movie performs, having taken over the franchise based on C.S. Lewis’ beloved fantasy novels from Walt Disney Co.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, their cousin Eustace, King Caspian and a warrior mouse named Reepicheep on a mission to mysterious islands and a reunion with the great lion Aslan.
“There certainly will be an audience for this picture, I just don’t think it is going to restore the franchise to its former glory,” said Brandon Gray of the cinema tracking website www.boxofficemojo.com.
When the first Narnia picture The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, it earned $745 million in ticket sales and was the third biggest movie of the year, raising hopes at Disney that it could be the next Harry Potter.
Like the hit Potter series, there are seven children’s books of source material to work with, and a certain level of familiarity with readers around the world.
But Prince Caspian, the second Narnia picture released in 2008, recorded global box office takings of $420 million.
That appeared to be enough to convince Disney to part company with Narnia producer Walden Media, three years after touting it as its next blockbuster film property. Fox, owned by News Corp, stepped in early in 2009.
Prince Caspian’s theatrical performance would normally be considered impressive, but with production costs estimated at over $200 million, a hefty marketing budget and unflattering comparisons to the first movie, it was deemed a failure.
Experts put its problems down to a May release rather than December and the fact that the public were more familiar with Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe than Prince Caspian.
Mark Johnson, a producer on all three Narnia films, told the Wall Street Journal that the new movie was made for a relatively modest $140 million.
He added that the marketing campaign had “really reached out to the faith-based community”, a reference to strong Christian symbolism in Lewis’ tales which could appeal to some audiences.
With no decision yet made on a fourth movie, much will be riding on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Gray of Boxofficemojo said Fox and Walden should not expect too much.
“I would consider it a relative success if the picture gets close to the Prince Caspian numbers,” he said, adding that global ticket revenues of over $400 million “should warrant another movie”.