Why 'Beauty and the Beast' will be the biggest box-office hit of the year so far

A quarter of a century ago, Disney turned “Beauty and the Beast" into a box-office smash and the first animated movie to earn a best picture Oscar nomination. Why would Disney spend $160 million on a risky, live-action retelling of such a classic?

The answer is about to become abundantly clear. The new “Beauty and the Beast” is expected to easily become the biggest box-office opener so far this year after it hits theaters Thursday night.

Disney’s musical fairy tale is likely to gross more than $130 million in the U.S. and Canada in its first weekend of release, according to analysts, benefiting from mostly strong reviews and audience buzz for its faithful treatment of the beloved original. Some observers think that it may open as high as $150 million and eventually reach $1 billion in global receipts, boosted by its major appeal among female moviegoers.

“Everything we’re seeing says it’s going to be the biggest thing since the last ‘Star Wars,’ ” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “There’s not a negative sign out there at this point.”

Here’s why:

Anticipation is high

Disney has built a successful business turning its old cartoons into live-action spectacles with “Maleficent,” “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” and the Burbank company is currently working on remakes of “Dumbo" and “Mulan” to continue the strategy. Dusting off the oldies can be a perilous game, but filmmaking technology has become so advanced that the live-action versions can do the originals justice, said Dave Hollis, executive vice president of distribution at Disney.

“There is a high bar we have to hurdle in terms of delivering something extraordinary that is adapted from something classic,” Hollis said. “We’ve had a lot of success, and we’re doubling down on it.”

The 1991 original “Beauty” is especially beloved. So Disney didn’t mess much with the source material for its new version, which stars Emma Watson of the “Harry Potter” films as Belle and Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as the cursed prince. It was directed by Bill Condon, known for “The Twilight Saga” and the musical “Dreamgirls.”

The addition of a gay minor story line sparked some controversy. Other than that, the songs are back, as are the singing furniture, the yellow gown and the falling rose petals. The first teaser trailer drew 91 million views in one day when it was released in May.

Online ticket seller Fandango said Tuesday that “Beauty” has sold more advance tickets than any family movie in the Los Angeles company’s 17-year history.

Musicals are hot

The musical genre was once as much of a Hollywood staple as the western, but has since fallen out of favor at the box office. However, “La La Land” ($417 million in worldwide sales) proved that an escapist song-and-dance fantasy could still become a commercial smash, even in countries that haven’t traditionally responded to the format, like China. “Beauty and the Beast” also opens internationally this week in places including China, Britain and Russia.

Disney is hoping that the classic songs will help drive repeat business, the way songs like “Let It Go” did for the computer-animated musical “Frozen” in late 2013. That movie eventually collected $1.27 billion worldwide because families, particularly ones with little girls, kept going back to the multiplex and listening to the soundtrack on loop in between trips.

No competition

The release of “Beauty and the Beast” is well-timed, coinciding with spring break for many kids. There hasn’t been a major kid-friendly movie since “The Lego Batman Movie” hit theaters more than a month ago, giving Disney a big opportunity to capture consumers.

“There hasn't been a ton of product for family audiences through this point of the year,” Hollis said. “We're going to stand out as that picture that everyone can see.”

The only other significant release this week is a horror movie called “The Belko Experiment,” about 80 Americans forced into a sick social experiment in a corporate tower in Colombia. Released by BH Tilt, the film is part of an experiment by “Get Out” producer Jason Blum to release small horror movies at a low cost and still make a profit. The movie cost less than $5 million to make and should gross $4 million.

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

@rfaughnder

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