Though it was positioned in Fox's marketing as the big holiday release to beat and even got a London premiere with the Queen in attendance, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader sure didn't look like a blockbuster when it opened in the U.S. on Friday. It topped the box office, sure, but with a paltry $24.5 million, less than half the opening weekend numbers of the first two films in the franchise, and less even than 2007's The Golden Compass, another adaptation of fantasy children's literature now regarded as a flop. Fox will probably do fine with their investment-- Dawn Treader has already made $105 million overseas-- but it's clear that interest in the franchise has seriously waned since The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe made $745 million worldwide.

So what happened? It's not like people aren't seeing fantasy movies, with the Harry Potter franchise raking in money like it's going out of style, and during the holidays families will see pretty much anything PG rated. I've got four theories on how the Narnia franchise became such a dud, from problems inherent in C.S. Lewis's books to the fact that none of the movies have managed to do all that much with the material. I'm not here to hate on the franchise, which clearly is still entertaining millions (though it's highly unlikely we'll see a fourth film), but to analyze what went wrong in an effort once thought of as a potential juggernaut.


Too long between installments. It's only been five years since The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was the big success of the 2005 holiday movie season, and just over two since Prince Caspian, but it feels like much longer given the way the Narnia movies completely drop out of the conversation between releases. Unlike the Harry Potter movies, which had books published in-between movies and benefited from being a relatively new phenomenon, the Narnia movies had no way of keeping the enthusiasm going between installments, and the people who were already fans of the book already had been for years, with nothing new to pique their interest. As a result Dawn Treader feels like it's arriving 10 years after the first film, not five, looking more like an afterthought that a continuation of a franchise.


The books are too different from each other. One of the pleasures of reading the Narnia series is that each adventure comes from a completely different angle of the world, from the snowy magic of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to the desert adventure of The Horse and His Boy. Only three of the books even feature the original Pevensie children, which is why Prince Caspian was yanked out of its traditional book order and made as the second film, in order to get all four kids onscreen one more time. But the variety that works well when you've got the box set sitting in front of you-- why not give the book set on the ship a shot?-- is a huge challenge when marketing movies that come out years apart, trying to wrangle audiences back in theaters and convince people that somehow they'll get the same joy out of the ship movie that they did from the one with all the battlefield scenes.


Nobody read past the first book. Yes, plenty of Narnia superfans are going to contest me on this, but let's be serious. There's a decent chance your parents read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to you, or that you read it in school or even studied it as an example of Christian allegory at some point in college. But when it came to finishing out the series, you were pretty much on your own, and if you weren't all that into fantasy novels there was little chance you were going to bother with that came next. And sure, the fact that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was a hit should have meant that people really wanted to see what was next, but that story is so self-contained, and what comes next so different from the first one, that there wasn't the same kind of driving narrative as, say, wanting to see if Harry avenges his parents' deaths at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Superfans disagree all you like, but people only vaguely familiar with Aslan's table clearly haven't been lining up for the next movie installment.


The movies are just not that interesting. It's the sad but true fact of the entire Narnia franchise: no matter how polished, visually perfect and thematically resonant the stories are, they're just not that much fun. The Pevensie kids are all nice and friendly and, aside from Edmund's dalliance with the White Witch, generally do the right thing. Prince Caspian is a valiant leader with a natural sense of right and wrong. There's adventure and a little peril in the movies, but you never feel like things will ever turn out badly, or that evil will come even close to triumphing over the righteous. That's partly a result of Lewis's series, which teach moral lessons in a way modern writers probably would tone down, but also the directing of the films by Andrew Adamson and Michael Apted-- they get all the pieces in place and all the lines said out loud, but they've never given the movies all that much spark. I'm not sure it's possible to adapt C.S. Lewis's books into movies that carry the same thrill, and Apted and Adamson have tried their best; after three tries, maybe it's time to admit a noble defeat.

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