The winner of this weekend's box office derby is not in doubt.  Disney's film of the first book in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, is a certain victor--the only question is by how much.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth film in that series, has demonstrated fantasy's continuing box office power with a superb worldwide showing.  The latest Potter epic is the only film to top the domestic box office three weeks in a row in 2005, but in its fourth week it is sure to be overtaken by Disney's Narnia film, which should benefit both from a massive marketing campaign and from solid reviews (78% positive according to the Rotten Tomatoes Website).


In addition to a major mainstream marketing campaign Disney has conducted a very targeted offensive aimed at attracting Christian moviegoers to its Narnia film, in which the Aslan, the lion character, is quite obviously a symbol of Christ.  Disney hired the same marketing firm employed by Mel Gibson for his highly successful (over $600 million worldwide) The Passion of the Christ.  With downloadable Narnia sermons, trailer screenings in churches, and the popularity of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in the growing number of Christian bookstores, the faithful may provide the reservoir of repeat viewers necessary to create a mega-hit.


But The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe with its New Zealand locations and big budget (over $150 million) special effects should also have the potential to the secular fan base that made The Lord of the Rings Trilogy such a smash.  (Ironically LOTR author J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a Catholic, was a key member of the circle of Christian academics responsible for C.S. Lewis' conversion from atheism, but the Christian themes are much more muted and less obviously allegorical in LOTR).  The major obstacle that Disney faces in appealing to the LOTR audience is the fact that LOTR director Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong opens next weekend, and Jackson's film has garnered even more spectacular reviews (94% positive at the current time) than Disney's initial Narnia epic.


While box office forecasters are predicting a $45-50 million opening for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Jackson's King Kong film could be an epic box office performer and is clearly favored to win next weekend's contest.  Riding an enormous wave of positive pre-release buzz, the only limiting factor for Kong's box office success could be its 3-hour length -- though the almost equally lengthy LOTR films were huge successes.  The mythology of King Kong may be modern in origin, but the image of the big ape perched on the top of the Empire State Building is burned into the contemporary psyche.  Retailers should have access to lots of King Kong merchandise including trading cards from Topps, action figures from Playmates, and more than a dozen collector's figures from Dark Horse/WETA.