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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A talking lion is expected to devour Marvel superhero "Iron Man" at the North American box office this weekend, as Walt Disney Co. opens its much-anticipated fantasy sequel "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."
The follow-up to Disney's 2005 adaptation of British author C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" debuts on Friday in nearly 4,000 theaters, with forecasts of U.S.-Canadian ticket sales through Sunday exceeding $80 million.
"Prince Caspian" is widely expected to open at No. 1, knocking "Iron Man" from its two-week perch atop the domestic box office and easily surpassing the $65.6 million grossed by the earlier "Narnia" film during its first weekend in December 2005.
The big question on the minds of industry watchers is how the sequel will fare during its entire theatrical run against the first film, which grossed about $745 million worldwide.
"Even if it opens in the high-$80 million range, it's not a slam dunk to surpass the first movie's (long-term) box office, which benefited from a holiday release period when it was the best film in town," said Brandon Gray, president of the online movie publication Box Office Mojo.
"I'm thinking anything over $75 million will be solid for the movie," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking service Media By Numbers. "Prince Caspian" later faces tough competition, especially from "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which opens May 22, he noted.
This weekend, however, "Caspian" has the domestic movie megaplex pretty much to itself, with no other films in wide release debuting against it.
Last week's big release, "Speed Racer," got off to a slow, third-place start with $18.6 million in ticket sales, behind two-week box-office champ "Iron Man" at $51.2 million and the comedy "What Happens in Vegas," which opened at No. 2 with $20.2 million.
The "Narnia" sequel has some other factors to overcome over the long haul.
"While it was unique when it first came out, there have been many other fantasy films in the interim. And it's no 'Harry Potter,"' Gray said. He cited "The Spiderwick Chronicles" in February and last year's "Bridge to Terabithia" as films that missed expectations and wore the genre thin.
"Prince Caspian" has drawn solid reviews, although critics found it notably darker in tone than the first.
The all-powerful talking lion Aslan is back, along with the four Pevensie siblings, who are a year older but find that 1,300 years have passed in Narnia when they return to the magical kingdom to help gallant Prince Caspian in his struggle against King Miraz.
The sequel, like the first big-screen "Narnia" adventure, is directed by Andrew Adamson.
Despite the marketing blitz surrounding the film, a Box Office Mojo poll of moviegoers' advance interest in films shows "Prince Caspian" has not quite reached the heights generated by "Iron Man."
"About 42 percent of the 1,500 polled so far said they were interested in seeing ('Prince Caspian') on opening weekend. That's strong," Gray said, but not as strong as the 64 percent registered in the same survey for "Iron Man" before it opened.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle