When it comes to classic fantasy franchises that are based on a best-selling book series, there have been plenty that have left a considerable mark on both the literary and cinematic landscape such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones (even if that one was only on TV rather than film) just to name a few. However, there’s one notable book-to-film franchise that may not have had the same kind of critical acclaim as the others but was nevertheless a big deal when it first came out. The first installment of the film series is also notably celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, so I figured that it would be the perfect time to delve into the franchise that is The Chronicles of Narnia. A bona fide staple of children’s literature, The Chronicles of Narnia got its start in 1950 with the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by author C.S. Lewis. Like his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien (AKA the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), Lewis was a World War I veteran turned author who was a member of the English faculty at Oxford University and was best known for his work in fantasy. His most famous work was, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia, with seven mainline installments published from 1950 to 1956. Nowadays, it’s one of the best-selling book series of all-time with over 120 million copies sold worldwide. It’s also seen its fair share of adaptations over the years. There was a 1967 serial of the first book that, unfortunately, is predominately lost at the moment, an animated made-for-TV adaptation in 1979 that was notably directed by Peanuts director Bill Melendez, and an eighteen-episode TV series based on the first four books and produced by the BBC from 1988 to 1990. But for the purpose of today’s retrospective, we’ll be focusing solely on the trilogy of films that were produced by Disney (and Fox… more on that later…) in the mid-2000s.
In a time where many of the attempts at producing a film franchise based on a popular book series struggled to match the success of the Harry Potter franchise, The Chronicles of Narnia was quite arguably one of the most successful ventures of this cinematic trend. In total, these three films managed to gross over $1.5 billion worldwide and, apart from the third installment, fared generally well with critics. However, just like many of its non-Harry Potter peers, this still ended up being a case where, despite its success, the franchise was unable to do a complete adaptation of its source material. Only three films managed to come out of this incarnation of the franchise before the film rights deal between its production company, Walden Media, and C.S. Lewis’ estate expired in 2011. And while plans for a potential ‘reboot’ via a new production company, The Mark Gordon Company, were initiated in 2013 with an adaptation of The Silver Chair under the direction of Joe Johnston, a different take on the series was announced in 2018 in the form of a deal between Lewis’ estate and Netflix. Under the supervision of Matthew Aldrich (one of the co-writers of Disney/Pixar’s 2017 masterpiece Coco), this new take on the franchise will reportedly consist of a combination of both films and TV shows. And while there haven’t really been any further details about it since then, I’m betting that this will probably turn out a lot like another big Netflix-produced literary adaptation, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and give Narnia fans the best live-action interpretation yet of their beloved franchise. But until then, it’s time for us to get incredibly nostalgic as we look back at the last major attempt at bringing C.S. Lewis’ fantastical world to life. And so, without further ado, prepare to journey into Narnia as we look at the Disney/Fox-produced Chronicles of Narnia film series.
(Before we begin, though, I should probably address the ‘elephant in the room’ that is the Narnia series’ religious subtext. This was, after all, a recurring element of C.S. Lewis’ work as he was also well-known for writing several Christian apologist novels. However, for the purpose of today’s retrospective, this aspect of the series will not be addressed in any particular manner. While this is mainly because I’m not even remotely well-versed on this topic in the first place, I also feel that bringing this sort of subject matter up could potentially turn this whole post into a much different kind of discussion.)
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005)
While it’s easy to just write it off as Disney’s attempt at replicating the massive success of the Lord of the Rings franchise, the first Chronicles of Narnia film was very much a big deal when it first came out. Speaking from experience as part of the generation that grew up with this franchise (if I’m right, this was the film that served as my family’s annual New Year’s Eve trip to the theater), this film was backed by a considerably large marketing campaign. And overall, it certainly benefitted from all that hype in the long run as it managed to become the third highest-grossing film of the year behind only Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Revenge of the Sith. All in all, not a bad turnout for a film that served as the live-action directorial debut of Andrew Adamson, who had only helmed a few animated films at that point (granted, those films were the hugely successful Shrek and Shrek 2, but this was still at a time before other animation directors like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton made the transition as well). It was also notably the feature-length screenwriting debuts of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who, of course, would then go on to pen several key installments of a little franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while it may have been several years before the duo would give us the likes of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame, this film still serves as a great example of how they’ve been able to deliver on ambitiously epic narratives. While I’ll admit that it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, it seems like the film did a solid job of adapting its source material as it properly maintains all its key moments without making a lot of significant deviations from the story to the point where it’d become a case of an ‘in name only’ adaptation. At the same time, though, the changes that it does make still feel appropriate enough in context, namely by alleviating some of the more ‘dated’ aspects of the novel (e.g. giving Susan and Lucy Pevensie larger roles in the finale rather than having them sit out on all the action).
As for the rest of the film, I’d describe it in the same way that one would describe the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thanks to Adamson’s solid direction, the film does a wonderful job of exploring its fantastical world through the eyes of its relatable group of protagonists. The world of Narnia is brilliantly brought to life through an excellent combination of solid CGI, top-notch production design, and gorgeous cinematography to the point where the filmmakers even utilized the same breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand that heavily defined the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this film also sports a solid cast. The lead quartet of William Moseley (Peter), Anna Popplewell (Susan), Skandar Keynes (Edmund), and Georgie Henley (Lucy) more than hold their own as the Pevensie children, but where this film’s ensemble really shines is with its supporting cast. There’s Tilda Swinton as the sinister White Witch, James McAvoy as Lucy’s friend Mr. Tumnus the faun, and Liam Neeson as the voice of Narnia’s greatest protector, Aslan the lion… and yes, that’s just to name a few. Because of all this, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe still stands as one of the best book-to-film adaptations of its time. At the risk of overly comparing it to its competition, it’s a unique mix of the whimsical atmosphere of the Harry Potter series and the epic scale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Plus, regardless of its status as Disney’s attempt of capitalizing on the success of Lord of the Rings (not to mention the eventual fate of the franchise itself), the genuine faithfulness to its source material ultimately shows that this adaptation was given the respect that it deserves. And really, what better property to attempt to be the next Lord of the Rings than the series that was written by the author who arguably had the closest working relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien?
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (2008)
With one successful installment under its belt, the stage was set for the second Chronicles of Narnia film in 2008, which adapted the series’ second novel, 1951’s Prince Caspian… which, in some circles, is the fourth installment of the series. Yeah, if you’ll allow me to go on a brief tangent for a moment, The Chronicles of Narnia has been the source of a rather unique debate over the preferred order of its 7 installments. When Lewis first published the books in the ’50s, they weren’t specifically numbered as he wasn’t initially planning on doing any follow-ups to the first book. Thus, the series’ initial order was simply the chronological order of each book’s release; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. However, they aren’t completely in order when it comes to the over-arching story since The Horse and His Boy takes place in-between the first two books while Magician’s Nephew serves as a prequel to the entire franchise since it delves into the origins of Narnia. Starting in 1994, however, when HarperCollins acquired the publication rights to the franchise, the books were arranged in order of the overall narrative. Supposedly, this is the order that C.S. Lewis himself preferred as evident from a letter that he wrote to a young fan who was arguing with his mother over the order that they should be read. However, it is worth noting that, in that same letter, he also stated that he felt that it ultimately didn’t matter which way the books were read. Nevertheless, the box set that I got for Christmas in 2006 in the wake of the first film’s release was ordered by the in-universe chronology… which I’ll admit made things a little confusing when I was younger since the film series opted to go for Lewis’ original order of publication, which wasn’t exactly something that I was fully aware of back then. Nowadays, though, I’d say that I’m primarily in favor of the series’ publication order, which was the appropriate route for the films to go since it helps them avoid the problem of the lead actors outgrowing their roles.
Anyway, the core cast and crew of the first film (save for a different cinematographer) returned for the sequel which, upon its release, got a lot of attention for being a much darker film in terms of its tone. Much of this is due to the Pevensies learning that, while it’s been a year since they last traveled to Narnia, over 1,300 years have passed within Narnia itself. Thus, apart from Aslan (who doesn’t properly show up until the end of the film), all their old friends are gone and much of Narnia has been taken over by a race of humans known as the Telmarines. With the kingdom now under the control of the sinister King Miraz, the Pevensies team up with Miraz’s nephew, the titular Prince Caspian, to save Narnia from this new threat. But while this darker tone proved to be a source of contention amongst critics, I’d say that the film handles this transition rather well. Sure, the greater emphasis on human antagonists does sort of make this story feel more like Game of Thrones than Chronicles of Narnia (and no, I’m not just saying that because Tyrion Lannister himself, Peter Dinklage, is in this film as Trumpkin, one of the Pevensies’ new allies), but overall, the film doesn’t stray too far from the franchise’s light-hearted roots. As dark as it does get at times, it still manages to feel like a natural follow-up to its predecessor that both appropriately raises the stakes from a story perspective and furthers the character development of the main protagonists. And while this installment does deviate further from its source material than the first film did, it only really comes in the form of an additional action sequence where the heroes try to raid Miraz’s castle and a potential romance between Susan and Caspian that’s another instance of the filmmakers’ efforts to give her a larger role in the story. Thus, under the once again solid direction of Andrew Adamson, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is another top-notch (and arguably a bit underrated) outing for this franchise. Looking back at it now with the benefit of hindsight, Adamson and his team deserve a lot of credit for daring to take this sequel in a darker direction, especially since we’re talking about a franchise that was still under the Disney banner at the time (though, of course, that was about to change…)
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010)
For the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series, which adapted 1952’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there was quite a bit of creative shake-up behind the scenes that primarily stemmed from a change in distributor. While Prince Caspian did solidly enough at the box-office, it was still seen as a commercial underperformer partially due to it being released in May instead of December, where it faced competition from the likes of Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It ultimately managed to gross nearly $420 million worldwide, but while this was enough for it to finish in the Top 10 that year, it was still far from the $745 million total that its predecessor achieved. Also, it probably didn’t help that the film sported a far bigger budget at around $225 million. Thus, Disney and Walden Media ended up in a dispute over the third film’s budget, with the former wanting to keep it at $100 million for fear of it going over-budget during filming while the latter requested $140 million, which Disney would’ve only had to provide half of. Ultimately, though, Disney decided to relinquish its ownership of the series, which then resulted in the film rights being picked up by 20th Century Fox. However, it would end up being the only Narnia film that Fox produced after Walden Media’s deal with C.S. Lewis’ estate officially expired the following year. But, of course, to make this whole situation even more ironic, Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019 effectively makes The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a Disney film after all. This film also notably saw a change in director, although Andrew Adamson did stay on as a producer. Instead, directorial duties went to Michael Apted, a longtime veteran of the film industry whose filmography includes the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter and Pierce Brosnan’s third official outing as James Bond, 1999’s The World is Not Enough.
Overall, Apted does a solid job following in Adamson’s footsteps, thus preventing any major inconsistencies in the franchise’s overall direction. In other words, Apted properly maintains the whimsical nature of the series in an installment that is certainly not as dark and serious as its immediate predecessor. In fact, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is even more light-hearted than The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe due to its more adventure-oriented premise that doesn’t boast a single large-scale battle. And yet, despite what I said before about how I was fine with how Prince Caspian took the series in a more mature direction, I also feel that this series works just as well as a light-hearted fantasy adventure as it does as a Lord of the Rings-scale epic. In fact, I even understand why some felt that Prince Caspian’s tonal shift resulted in it lacking some of the series’ charm and how this film brought much of that back. Sure, this installment is admittedly a lot more reliant on CGI than either of its predecessors, but overall, it still does a wonderful job of maintaining the series’ knack for incredibly delightful production design. And while this is ultimately the most blatant case of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely having to stray from the source material to adapt this installment to film, it ultimately feels appropriate in this case given the episodic nature of the book. In fact, the film even manages to get by with a shorter runtime of under two hours whereas the first two films were both two and a half hours long. And so, with all this in mind, I must say that I’m wholly impressed with how much I liked Voyage of the Dawn Treader since, full disclosure, this was the only installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series that I didn’t see in theaters since this was at a point where I admittedly didn’t go to see as many family films as I used to when I was younger. But while I may not have the same history with this film that I have with the other two Narnia films, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a pleasantly easygoing and predominately uncynical follow-up that continues to thoroughly maintain the best parts of this franchise. And while it’s sad that this was ultimately as far as the film series got when it came to adapting the series, the way in which it ends does inadvertently manage to deliver a fitting send-off for this interpretation of the series since the book was the last main installment to focus specifically on the Pevensie children.
Now, before we conclude today’s post, I decided to do the same thing that I did last year when I published a retrospective on the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise by also including this franchise’s representation in Disney’s theme parks since… well, let’s face it, when else would we ever talk about it on this site? And so, welcome to the ‘unofficial’ next installment of The DisInsider’s ‘Disney Parks Featured Attraction’ series as we look at…
THE JOURNEY INTO NARNIA ATTRACTIONS
There were two Disney Parks attractions based on the Chronicles of Narnia franchise, with both being similarly structured walk-through experiences that were based on each of the two Narnia films that were produced under the Disney banner prior to 2010. Both incarnations of this attraction were located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and were based in the former Soundstage 4 building. When the park first opened in 1989 as Disney-MGM Studios, this building was a part of the Backstage Studio Tour which, in the early years of its operation, included a walking tour. Back then, Soundstage 4 primarily housed some of the sets of projects that were filmed at the park; namely, an exclusive 1989 short film titled The Lottery starring Bette Midler that showcased how the park’s recreation of a New York street and its various soundstages could be used for filming. This then led to a stop on the tour that was dedicated to the post-production process of filmmaking in a spot that, nowadays, houses the Walt Disney Presents exhibit. While the walking segment of the Studio Backlot Tour ultimately closed in 2001 as part of the gradual transformation that it underwent up until its closure in 2014, Soundstage 4 continued to house sets from some of Disney’s most recent releases. From 1996 to 2002, it primarily housed sets from the 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians. And in 2003, an attraction that was similar in execution to how the Narnia attractions were handled came via a behind-the-scenes look at that year’s film adaptation of Disney’s beloved Haunted Mansion attraction (and yes, before you ask, the film was ‘not as beloved’ as its iconic source material). The first incarnation of the Narnia attractions, Journey into Narnia: Creating ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’, opened on December 9th, 2005, the same day that the film was released in theaters in the U.S.
The attraction began with guests traveling through the iconic wardrobe from the film that transported the Pevensie children into Narnia. Once inside, guests found themselves in a recreation of the wintry forest where Lucy Pevensie first meets Mr. Tumnus, including a replica of the lamppost and the entrance to Mr. Tumnus’ house. Guests then found themselves confronted by the White Witch herself, who quotes some of her lines from the film and warns them of the recent appearances of “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve” (AKA what the Pevensies are frequently called when they’re in Narnia). After that, guests viewed a heavily condensed 4-minute short that covered the film’s story. It even included some notable spoilers, such as the climactic battle between Aslan’s forces and the Witch’s army, the Pevensies being crowned as the kings and queens of Narnia, and even the very end of the film when they return to the real world (to reiterate, this opened the exact same day as the film’s release). Near the end of its run, the attraction also included a sneak peek of Prince Caspian. Following the abridged short, guests could then walk through a gallery of various props from the film, which included everything from screen-authentic costumes to the White Witch’s sleigh. This incarnation of the attraction ultimately closed its doors on January 1st, 2008. On a unique note, this was less than a week before Disney-MGM Studios was rebranded as Disney’s Hollywood Studios on January 7th when the original licensing deal between Disney and MGM Studios officially expired. Six months later, on June 27th, 2008, the second incarnation of the Journey into Narnia attraction opened to promote that year’s Prince Caspian. Unlike its predecessor, however, the attraction did not open on the exact same day that the film hit theaters in the U.S. Instead, it debuted just one day after the film made its theatrical debut in the United Kingdom more than a month later.
This incarnation of the attraction began with guests entering an indoor queue in front of a rocky archway. On a nearby monitor, a short featurette hosted by Andrew Adamson delved into the film’s production. And unlike the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe version of the attraction, which was ultimately more of a showcase of props, this was what made the Prince Caspian version more production-oriented as it covered various aspects of the filmmaking process including makeup, visual effects, and set design/on-location filming. Guests then proceeded to walk through the rock archway and enter the underground chamber from the film that housed the Stone Table where Aslan sacrificed himself in the previous film. Once inside, guests watched another clip that, like the 4-minute short from the previous attraction, presented a condensed version of the film that, once again, included some major spoilers. This included an extended look at the sequence from the film where Caspian is tempted by the treacherous dwarf Nikabrik into resurrecting the White Witch before the Pevensies come in to prevent it from happening. While the White Witch did not appear on the primary screen, she did appear on an adjacent one to mirror the wall of ice that she appears from in the film. After that, just like before, guests then walked through a gallery containing props from the film. There was even a brief period where Prince Caspian appeared as a meet-and-greet character, but it’s worth noting that this started in May before the attraction opened and wasn’t directly tied to it. This version of the attraction officially closed on September 10th, 2011. Ironically, this was long after Disney had relinquished the franchise’s film rights to 20th Century Fox and nearly a year after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was released in theaters. The attraction was then replaced by a different walk-through experience on December 6th, 2012 that was based on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, which ran for nearly two years before it closed on November 6th, 2014. It would end up being the last attraction that was staged in Soundstage 4, which was then demolished in 2017. Today, the former site of Soundstage 4 now serves as part of the walkway leading into Toy Story Land, situated right between Walt Disney Presents and Pixar Place, the latter of which currently contains an entertainment area themed to The Incredibles.
And that concludes this retrospective on the Chronicles of Narnia film series. As always, thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own memories of this ambitious epic of a franchise. And as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheDisInsider) for the most up-to-date information about your favorite Disney projects.