You'd think that an immensely popular and beloved book series, a spiritual sibling to The Lord of the Rings, would translate to a hit film series. But The Voyage of the Dawn Treader's anemic debut says otherwise. What's gone wrong?
Since launching in 2005 with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—which grossed $292 million—The Chronicles of Narnia has eroded at the box office. 2008's Prince Caspian brought in less than half of its predecessor's take, $142 million, while Dawn Treader's $24 million opening weekend will likely wind up another "half of the previous" total. Why did what began so promising end up heading toward failure?
There's no creative mind at the helm
When dealing with a saga, there needs to be one person charting the course, ensuring quality control and making the hard decisions. Star Wars has George Lucas, Lord of the Rings has Peter Jackson, Harry Potter has the fear of incurring the wrath of J.K. Rowling—while the Narnia films have had changes in writers, directors and even studios over the course of three movies. The audience can sense that kind of overhaul, even if they're not entirely sure why.
It's all so ... square
Yes, as written by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia are very steadfastly Christian—right down to the Aslan-as-Jesus sacrifice. Lewis himself pointed out how the Narnia cycle parallels the story of Christ:
- The Magician's Nephew tells of the creation and how evil entered Narnia.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells of the crucifixion and resurrection.
- Prince Caspian tells of the restoration of the true religion after corruption.
- The Horse and His Boy tells the calling and conversion of a heathen.
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader tells the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
- The Silver Chair tells the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
- The Last Battle tells the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement.
And that's all fine — except that the modern moviegoing audience wants something with an edge or, at least, something that pretends to have an edge. Twilight is the squarest, chastest romance you'll ever see, but because it's got vampires that look like mopey rock stars, it feels edgy. Harry Potter is also very straightforward, but it's drenched in a color palette that makes it moodier than a German expressionist flick. Narnia's got a kid who betrays his family for a meal.
Seven movies is a long way to go to tell one story.
Not that you can't take seven movies—Harry Potter's gonna take eight to get to the finish line—but there had better be a sense of urgency to go along with the shiny wonder to justify the audience's continued fidelity. (Either that or the movies have to continue to be so popular you can do whatever the hell you want.) If Narnia's going to continue, they might want to condense the story somewhat to make it move faster.
And it's episodic—in a bad way
Tune in for another adventure with those rascally Pevensie kids! There never feels like there's much of a throughline from film to film—other than that these kids get pulled from their World War II British existence to gallivant in a fantasy world at the beginning of each movie. So much so that it doesn't really feel like any film has an impact on any other. The characters feel incidental to the drama, which is never a good way to engender love from an audience. (Heck, the Pevensies fade from the Narnia books as well, proving that this story wasn't, ultimately, about them.)
The public will show up once for the spectacle, twice out of curiosity, but after that they need to have a vested interest in the plight of their heroes—otherwise, there's always some new cinematic spectacle to behold.