Walt Disney Studios is hoping that the same kind of church-based campaign that helped turn "The Passion of the Christ" into a blockbuster will convert C.S. Lewis' children's classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" into a big-screen franchise — with "Lion King"-sized profits.
Directed by Andrew Adamson ("Shrek"), the $150 million mix of computer-generated imagery and live action is due out Dec. 9 from Disney and Walden Media. Based on the first installment in a book series that has sold a combined 90 million copies over 55 years, the project seems tailor-made for the faith and family market.
Still, says Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice president of publicity, the initiative is "only one arrow in a large quiver of arrows" as the studio prepares to unveil one of the largest marketing campaigns it has mounted.
Among the companies with tie-ins: McDonald's, General Mills, Virgin Atlantic, Oral-B, Kodak and Taubman Centers, at whose shopping malls this season's holiday festivities will be "Narnia"-themed.
More than 50 licensees are manufacturing items such as board games, porcelain dolls, trading cards and photo albums; HarperCollins is publishing more than 140 editions of "Narnia," including six box sets and 31 audio versions, and a video game is due in November.
The push comes at a critical time for Disney. The studio is desperately seeking a blockbuster hit, and one that could deliver any number of sequels, along the lines of Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter" and New Line Cinema's "Lord of the Rings." Not only is Disney lacking in the franchise department, but its onetime stranglehold on family animation has been weakened by a flood of competitors.
"This is a huge roll of the dice for Disney and Walden," said "Narnia" producer Mark Johnson. "But the payoff could be enormous."
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" tells the story of four children who are evacuated to the countryside during the World War II bombing of London, only to find a magical wardrobe that leads to an eternal world.
Themes such as good versus evil, betrayal and, ultimately, forgiveness are woven into the tale. Some people regard a central character — Aslan, the lion — as a Christ figure tortured in place of a young human sinner. Others contend that Lewis' books should be seen as myth rather than biblical allegory.
"Everyone has his own take on the book, to which the movie is faithful," said Disney's Rice. "Rather than embracing any interpretation, we're remaining neutral, adopting the Switzerland approach."