NEW YORK — "People are looking at us," says 12-year-old Georgie Henley, perched on a stone ledge of the New York Public Library for a photo shoot on a crowded spring afternoon.
"Get used to it," whispers Skandar Keynes, 16, posing behind her.
The pair, along with William Moseley, 21, and Anna Popplewell, 19, are the stars of Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia films, and they're back for the second installment, Prince Caspian, opening nationwide Friday.
The British actors were thrust into the spotlight in 2005 after being cast as the Pevensie children in Disney's first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, adapted from C.S. Lewis' classic series.
Apparently, Georgie has forgotten all the hoopla that accompanied the first film, which opened with $65.6 million, the second-largest December debut ever, and went on to collect $291.7 million in the USA and Canada and millions more around the globe.
This time, the Pevensie children are summoned back to the mystical land of Narnia to help Prince Caspian claim his throne.
And expectations are even higher. In a summer that so far has had a runaway hit (Iron Man) and a major flop (Speed Racer), analysts are betting Narnia goes in the hit column.
"I think it's going to do some monster business," says Gitesh Pandya, editor of boxofficeguru.com. "The first film had legs at the box office; it wasn't just a one-weekend wonder. When you have that, it usually means the sequel will open even bigger."
It will have to make a stand quickly. The expected sensation Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull follows less than a week later, opening May 22.
"It's so scary, this summer, with all these big movies," says Narnia producer Mark Johnson. "I believe, like with the last one, we'll just continue to be strong day after day after day. We'll have a very good opening, and the following weekend will belong to Indiana Jones. Hopefully we'll just stay up there."
That summer feeling
Releasing the film in summer instead of winter like its predecessor seemed like a natural, says director Andrew Adamson, who also directed the first movie. "The first one kind of needed to be a Christmas film, what with Father Christmas and the snowy white winter," he says. "This one just really felt like a summer film."
It's less fairy-tale whimsy, more action adventure. Johnson describes it as "older, more mature and a little rougher, darker."
The children face off against Caspian's evil uncle, Lord Miraz, and the Telmarines, who have conquered Narnia. The children are determined to fight to restore the land to the Narnians, unsure whether Aslan the great lion will appear to help them.
Everything is bigger this time — and much of it is not taken literally from the book. It's C.S. Lewis' Caspian— magnified by Adamson's imagination.
"We didn't really expect things to up themselves quite as much as they did," Popplewell says. "There's so many new characters and so many more plot spreads, and more CGI (computer-generated imagery) and more action."
The story centers on two big action scenes: a large-scale battle showdown and a duel between Moseley and another character. Moseley and a stunt coordinator "worked on that one fight for two weeks, trying so many different things," he says. "It was so cool."
Even the youngsters get into the action. Georgie, whose character carried a special dagger in the first film, gets to wield it. "I was so happy!" she gushes.
It's all, of course, on behalf of Caspian, the newest member of Narnian royalty. British actor Ben Barnes, 26, brings a dash of eye candy to the film.
The young stars were nervous about who would play Caspian, but Barnes' gestures of friendship endeared him to the cast early. Shortly after Barnes was cast, Skandar got tickets to see Barnes in the London stage production of The History Boys. "Afterward, he invited me out for drinks," Skandar says. "But I had to remind him I was only 15 and it was a Wednesday night."
He was a perfect fit, Popplewell says. "He realized he was only going to survive if he was prepared to have all of us tease him the entire time," she jokes.
Moseley appreciated having another English actor closer to his age. "It was actually kind of cool. … Ben and I both love The Office, so that was really over-quoted throughout the shoot."
A love story arises
Among story lines not originally in Lewis' book: an ongoing flirtation between Popplewell and Barnes' characters.
Barnes, who has been a fan of the books since childhood, says he and Popplewell were both "anxious about having that thread in the movie because it's not one that's present in the book." In the end, he thinks it works. It's "very spontaneous and impulsive to me, and I feel that way about all relationships."
Says Popplewell: "They wanted to treat it very lightly."
Another new key character is the curmudgeonly Trumpkin, played by Peter Dinklage (Elf, TheStation Agent). The red dwarf shepherds the Pevensies and keeps an eye out for them. "The nanny from hell," jokes Dinklage.
One Narnia constant: controversy over possible Christian symbolism. Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have criticized the tales, calling them just a retelling of the story of Christ, but the filmmakers see universal themes.
"I really believe you see whatever you want to see in the film," Johnson says. "It's about faith, whatever kind of faith you have. The first movie was about finding faith, and this is the loss of faith and regaining of it. And that faith is whatever you want to make of it.
"That's one of the things that pleased me about the first film, that it was successful everywhere — even in Muslim countries."
Its four young stars are oblivious to such concerns, focused only on their upcoming premiere and promotional duties — and the freebies that come with being famous.
"Did they give you that?" Moseley asks when Skandar produces a cellphone. (It turns out to be a loaner from his hotel.)
The young actors have obviously formed a tight bond —— a "surrogate family," Popplewell says — talking over each other just as real siblings might.
They have many tales from their time together on set. During a weekend spent surfing in New Zealand, where much of the film was shot, Skandar unwittingly made filming more difficult for himself. The fair-skinned actor neglected to coat the back of his legs with sunblock and got a nasty burn.
Like a real brother, Moseley wasn't about to let that go by without further torture. "Will would run up behind me and smack the back of my legs," Skandar says.
"A year and a couple of months later, I still have a tan line," he says. "Do you want me to show you?"
But Moseley has a sentimental side, too. He was disappointed to find out there were no plans for a wrap party, so he took matters into his own hands and organized one.
"I went 'round with this big microphone on set to everybody and said, 'There's going to be a wrap party tonight!' " It was decided that as long as he organized it, a certain amount of money would go toward drinks. "So I had to stand around the door all night doing the wristbands, making sure everyone had a good time."
"It's probably the only thing he has ever organized in his life," Popplewell teases. "Will is not the most organized person."
All the excitement surrounding the film's opening is a bit bittersweet for the foursome, however. They know only the younger actors, Georgie and Skandar, will return for the next installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which begins filming in November for May 2010 release.
Georgie says she'll miss having Popplewell and Moseley around for comfort and reassurance.
"I don't think Skandar's the cuddliest!" she says.
"We used to torture him with group hugs," Popplewell adds.
"Normally, I'm the most annoying one," Georgie says. "So it's going to be a shame for Skandar when Anna or Will aren't around to shut me up."
But the elder stars have their own plans for life after Narnia. Moseley, who is from Gloucestershire, says he'd like to find a place in London and continue to pursue acting. He just turned down a film role, being selective about his next part. "It's always about my instincts," he says. "I really don't know genre-wise what that's going to be."
Popplewell is almost finished with her first year at Oxford; she's studying English literature. ("I should be writing an essay right now," she says.) But she, too, intends to keep acting.
For the younger actors, Narnia will take them to the high seas on a voyage of discovery and encounters with magical creatures.
"That's going to be a fun shoot on a ship in the middle of nowhere," teases Moseley.
"I think Will and I are going to have to come and visit," Popplewell says. "We can be centaurs."