Royal Narnia bloodline will lift 'Prince Caspian' to throne

Times Staff Writer

Testing faith is a major theme of "The Chronicles of Narnia" stories, but Hollywood clearly has confidence in the fantasy film franchise from Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," opening today at 3,929 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, is essentially the only movie of the summer with a weekend to itself (even next week's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and Will Smith's upcoming "Hancock" face a piece of road kill -- er, a "counterprogramming" picture going wide).

Pent-up demand should help the sequel to "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" outdo the original, at least on the initial weekend. Consumer tracking surveys show that the big-budget "Prince Caspian" could debut at $75 million to $80 million, knocking Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures' "Iron Man" from the top of the box-office heap.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis' classic children's series, opened to $65.6 million in December 2005 (or about $72.5 million adjusted for ticket-price inflation). With sturdy legs and international appeal, it ended up grossing $291.7 million domestically and $744.8 million worldwide.

Solid reviews, albeit not as glowing as those for the summer's first hit, "Iron Man," should help "Prince Caspian," as will last weekend's disastrous debut for Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer," which left only sputtering competition in the family film genre. "Prince Caspian" is rated PG for "epic battle action and violence."

In one consumer survey, 41% of females 25-and-up call the "Narnia" sequel their first choice among movies to see this weekend, indicating that moms are on board. Interest among other demographics is almost as keen.

"Caspian's" tracking numbers are on par with last summer's "The Simpsons Movie," which opened to $74 million, and slightly shy of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which launched to $77.1 million. But those movies opened against stiffer competition in the thick of summer, so "Prince Caspian" could fare better.

Still, the formidable "Iron Man" is likely to keep "Caspian" under $90 million this weekend, according to executives at rival studios. Even as a distant No. 2 in its third weekend, the metal-clad superhero will add about $30 million to its take.

The new "Narnia," introducing 26-year-old British actor Ben Barnes as Caspian, has more sword-clanging action than the first, which could appeal to men. And women could be lured by Barnes, who has the shiniest head of hair since John Edwards.

But, like most sequels, it could suffer a bit from the inevitable comparisons to the original. Projector, for example, regrets that Tilda Swinton, whose icy White Witch was the best thing about the first film, has only a cameo this time.

Word of mouth would need to be positive for the movie to match the box-office "multiple" of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which ultimately grossed 4 1/2 times its opening total. Tracking for "Indiana Jones," which opens Thursday, already looks massive, so the landscape won't get any cushier.

Even so, "Prince Caspian" should emulate its predecessor by doing well overseas. Lewis and the "Narnia" books have long been popular in Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (along with the U.S. and Canada), and Disney established the franchise in most other territories with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which racked up 61% of its business abroad.

Internationally, "Prince Caspian" will be rolled out over the summer on a schedule aimed at taking advantage of local school holidays.

Regardless of how big it becomes, the sequel looks sure to add a fourth straight hit to the resume of director and co-writer Andrew Adamson. Adamson, who either has a platinum touch or the luckiest timing since Ryan (soon-to-be Mr. Scarlett Johansson) Reynolds, also had a major hand in the original "Narnia" and the first two "Shrek" movies.




Weekend Forecast

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" will knock off "Iron Man" as the industry's box-office leader this weekend -- the only question is how big it will be. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will release estimated weekend grosses Sunday and final results Monday.

*--* -- Movie 3-day prediction Through the Weeks -- (studio) (millions) weekend

1 The Chronicles of Narnia: $78.9 $78.9 1 Prince Caspian (Disney)

2 Iron Man (Paramount) 30.0 221.5 3

3 What Happens in Vegas (20th 12.1 38.6 2 Century Fox)

4 Speed Racer (Warner Bros.) 9.0 31.2 2

5 Made of Honor (Sony) 4.7 33.9 3

6 Baby Mama (Universal) 3.5 46.2 4

7 Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2.4 55.0 5 (Universal)

8 Harold and Kumar Escape 1.5 33.6 4 From Guantanamo Bay (Warner Bros.)

9 The Forbidden Kingdom 1.0 50.3 5 (Lionsgate/Weinstein)

10 Nim's Island (20th Century 0.8 45.5 7 Fox) *--*

Source: Times research

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