Setting a new course for 'Narnia'

From Baltimore to New Zealand, Mark Johnson has made movies of all sizes, costs, colors and flavors. As Barry Levinson's producing partner in Baltimore Pictures, he teamed up with the prolific, versatile writer-director on some peak accomplishments, including Levinson's classic remembrance of things past, "Diner" (1982), and his radically original mobster movie, "Bugsy" (1991).

When Johnson started Mark Johnson Productions, he continued to go in zigzag yet profitable directions. He immediately hired a gifted Mexican filmmaker to create a new version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's book "A Little Princess" (1995). That director, Alfonso Cuaron, became a critical favorite and then an international phenomenon with pictures like "Y Tu Mama Tambien" — and " Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

Ten years later, Johnson collaborated with Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures on another children's-book adaptation. The result was a surprise blockbuster.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" became the 36th-highest-grossing film in history. It established " Shrek" director Andrew Adamson as a gifted live-action filmmaker: He brought C.S. Lewis' Narnia to life with just the right rough magic and robust spirituality. The quartet of unknown actors playing the British children who stumble into Narnia held their own with Tilda Swinton, the White Witch. Swinton, after decades in film, achieved international stardom.

The second Narnia film, "Prince Caspian," also directed by Adamson, told the thrilling, near-apocalyptic tale of how Narnia's rightful heir, Caspian, toppled the wicked monarch Miraz and saved all the magical Narnian creatures from extinction. Johnson, Walden and Disney expected it to top "LWW" because of its appeal to older audiences and its epic scope. Many critics (myself included) thought it was a corker.

But younger audiences who had flocked to "LWW" didn't offer the same support to "Caspian." The sequel made roughly $450 million worldwide instead of $750 million. Disney left the franchise.

"It was hard not to get disillusioned," Johnson acknowledged from Los Angeles this week. "Getting the call that Disney was bowing out — not my favorite day. But soon [ 20th Century] Fox called and said, 'We want in.' We had two mandates, mostly unspoken but very clear: Get back to the magic, charm and wonder of the first film. Then make it for less money. We did, without making Narnia look fake."

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," directed by Michael Apted, opens across the U.S. on Friday. After its Royal Performance in London, Andrew Pulver, of the Guardian, wrote that it "arrives with confidence and bravado intact."

Johnson can pinpoint the "mistakes" he and his team made with "Caspian." But he's eager to clarify that these errors don't reflect his view of director Adamson's accomplishment. "I am very proud of 'Prince Caspian.' I like it a lot, and I'm a firm believer in Andrew, a friend and a wonderful director. But I don't think 'Caspian' is the best book, as a Narnia book. It's very earthbound and it's very, if you allow me, 'Shakespearean.' It's Caspian searching for his uncle who killed his father. It's more adult."

So the movie failed to meet franchise expectations. "Our audience loved the creatures and the fantasy and the magic of Narnia, not so much the flesh and bones — what 'Caspian' as a book really is. The C.S. Lewis estate actually thought 'Caspian' was a better film than the first one. But also, let's face it: We went after a teenage audience, thinking, 'OK, we've got this good-looking swashbuckling guy, the girls will like him and the boys will like the action.' And we may have alienated our young audience — or our young audience through their mothers."

Johnson says that "Dawn Treader" is "a great yarn, closer to 'The Lion' than to 'Caspian.' It's a quest story that goes from island to island — it brings you back to 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.' Each island has its own magic, mystery and tension."

Director Apted, best known for "Coal Miner's Daughter," didn't feel pressured to soft-pedal episodes like kids being sold into slavery. "I think he handled it well," Johnson says, "partly because Lewis handled it well. Slavery in this story is scary and exciting — we don't really confront the possibility that the kids would be taken and beaten, or worse. We were very mindful of having fun on this one."

"Caspian" competed with Indiana Jones and Iron Man in summer 2008. Johnson says, "We've learned, the hard way, that we really are a Christmas franchise. The whole family will go to 'Dawn Treader' as part of the Christmas experience. You won't drop the kids off and then go off to your golf game."

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