It's never a good sign when Disney abandons your franchise. After the surprising holiday success of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, the studio inexplicably decided to change up the formula for the sequel, Prince Caspian. The even more expensive film tried to position itself as a summer blockbuster, passed itself off as an action-adventure title to appeal to teenagers, and masked much of the overt Christian allegory that was the hallmark of the first film (and the entire C.S. Lewis book series). These decisions look dubious in retrospect and the result, while not disastrous, was a difference in about $325 million in worldwide box office receipts.

After Prince Caspian, Disney parted with the franchise, leaving Philip Anschutz's Walden Media scrambling to find a new distributor for the next film. That's when 20th Century Fox (who failed to establish a fantasy holiday franchise with a middling Eragon adaptation) stepped in and decided to revive Narnia by getting back to basics: a holiday release date coupled with aggressive marketing to faith-based congregations and youth groups. This weekend, the third chapter of the series The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is coming to theaters, and Fox is crossing its fingers that it's promoted websites like Narniafaith.com (which dispenses faith-based sermons to churches) will pay off in box-office dividends. Here's what reviewers and box office prognosticators are predicting:

  • Christian Moviegoers Are the Key to Getting The Series On Track  In a profile of the film's business strategy on The Wrap, Brent Lang speaks with David Weil, CEO of the Anschutz Film Group division of Walden Media, who explains that the goal of the film will be to do "faith outreach in a manner that is consistent with the first film." On these faith-based sites (built by the Christian consulting group Grace Hill Media) visitors can find outlines for sermons that draw on the film's story and characters' spiritual growth to explore biblical themes. Walden Media jettisoned this sort of outreach for Caspian but now considers it essential to the success of Treader. The studio has even held pre-screenings of the film for the Christian community and "in February the filmmakers had a summit with faith-based leaders on the Fox lot, where they were shown footage and told that Dawn Treader would be more faithful to the novel," notes Lang.
  •  It Lacks the Sense of Awe and Wonder That Was in 'Wardrobe' observes Russ Breimeier at Christianity Today. Although the Christian themes are "more prominent" and Aslan the Lion "remains a strong Christ figure" the film is only "okay at best" and chock full of special effects scenes. Still, the film's themes "seemed to resonate with the primarily Christian audience I viewed it with; a post-screening discussion confirmed that. But there are bound to be disgruntled fans, and both perspectives have a point."
  • 'Investment Anxiety' Has Hobbled the Film's Sense of Wonder, finds Variety's Justin Chang who writes that the Christian fantasy film appears to be "risk-averse" in nearly every way. "3D ticket premiums and a well-timed December release could spell friendly B.O. winds initially," but Chang finds that the title often stifles the strengths of the novels: namely their appeal to wisdom and maturity "over temptation and pride." The writers for the movie view these themes "as a condition to be remedied, rather than a quality to be embraced" and they end up packing the movie with fantasy quests and even a "climactic sea-monster battle that smacks of 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'"
  • Remember It's One of the Only Big Family Films being released through the end of the year (the other is an adaptation of Yogi Bear), writes Ben Fritz at The Los Angeles Times. That means it could effectively corner the family market and "perform well through the end of the year." Fritz figures that if that scenario occurs, "it would surpass the $142-million final domestic gross of Caspian and approach the $292-million take of Wardrobe." He expects the film to open with a 3D-aided $40 million dollars during its opening weekend.
  • It Will Probably Live Up To Lowered Expectations, guesses Reagen Sulewski at Box Office Prophets, noting that some of the "heat" has worn off the franchise in the five years since Wardrobe hit theaters. Still, "the Narnia name still carries weight. A move to 3D and a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean adventure plot that's been glommed onto the story should help" although the reviews are "quite weak" which will cause "some shedding of the fanbase" from the $55 million dollar opening weekend of Caspian. Sulewski figures the film will start with about $43 million dollars over its opening frame.