LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The studios behind the new "Narnia" movie are walking a tightrope in their quest to promote the third film in the fantasy franchise to a Christian audience and to general moviegoers.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn't open until Friday, but Fox and family-friendly producer Walden Media have been showing it to influential Christians for about a month, even before a finished print was ready.
That the studios have been reaching out to the faith-based community is an obvious strategy, given that it is based on the "Narnia" series from Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis.
But they also are going out of their way not to pigeonhole the film as something that will appeal just to the world's 2.2 billion Christians. There are, after all, an additional 4.7 billion inhabitants of Earth.
Sometimes, it can be quite tricky.
Case in point is Liam Neeson, who voices Aslan, the resurrected lion in the upcoming film. The actor said at a news conference last week that his character doesn't necessarily represent Christ. That might be news to Lewis, though, who wrote the opposite before he died in 1963.
"Aslan symbolizes a Christlike figure, but he also symbolizes for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries," Neeson said.
The comment got some passionate bloggers working overtime to rebut Neeson's analysis by using Lewis' own words.
"The whole Narnian story is about Christ," Lewis once wrote. He said he "pictured him becoming a lion" because it's the king of beasts and because Christ is called "The Lion of Judah" in the Bible.
Aslan, wrote Lewis, "is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question: 'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia?'"
But "Dawn Treader" producer Mark Johnson agrees with the, shall we say, more inclusive analysis from Neeson, telling The Hollywood Reporter that "resurrection exists in so many different religions in one form or another, so it's hardly exclusively Christian."
"We don't want to favor one group over another ... whether these books are Christian, I don't know," Johnson added.
The Web site that Fox and Walden have set up at NarniaFaith.com doesn't hedge in its attempt to appeal to Christians. Pastors who visit the site, in fact, are encouraged to tell their congregants that Aslan is Jesus Christ.
The site provides outlines of sermons based on the Narnia stories and a video message from "Dawn Treader" executive producer Douglas Gresham, a stepson of Lewis. It even offers video clips from the movie to share with churchgoers. One, for example, has Aslan explaining to the children that, "in your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by it."
That other name is Jesus Christ, we're informed in the "sermon outlines." No mention of Buddha or Mohammad.
Mixed messages notwithstanding, the movie is tracking decently. It may open softer than the previous two Disney films in the series, 2005's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" ($66 million) and 2008's "Prince Caspian" ($55 million), but ultimately could do better business than the latter's eventual $142 million domestic haul.
If that's the case, it will likely be because Christians have embraced it, said Mark Moring, the senior associate editor of Christianity Today.
"I was stunned by Liam Neeson's quotes," Moring said. "But people who love these books know that Aslan is the Christ character. I can imagine Christians being irked or rolling their eyes at what he said, but it won't affect their enjoyment of the film."
Walden president Micheal Flaherty agreed.
"People aren't in a rush to have actors explain history and theology to them. They're much more interested in what Aslan says on screen," he said.
And in that regard, the movie will score well with Christians, said Ted Baehr, a Christian theologian who presides over Movieguide, an influential publication that recommends films not only on their entertainment value but also on their moral messaging.
"Although the movie skips over some of the Christian symbolism from the book and changes the plot to be more dramatic and cohesive, much of the symbolism is still there," Baehr informed his readers.
Talking to The Hollywood Reporter, he was even more enthusiastic about the film, which he saw a month ago.
"They worked very hard to keep it Christian, even though many of the cast and crew aren't Christians," he said. "They may not understand what they have created. I know Liam Neeson doesn't get it."