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'Secret Life of Pets' expected to unseat 'Finding Dory' at box office

'Secret Life of Pets' expected to unseat 'Finding Dory' at box office
Gidget (Jenny Slate), left, checks on Max (Louis C.K.) in a scene from "The Secret Life of Pets." (Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

Never underestimate the allure of cute cartoon animals at the box office. Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures' "The Secret Life of Pets" is expected to chow down on the competition this weekend and replace Disney-Pixar's "Finding Dory" as the No. 1 movie in the U.S. and Canada.

The new computer-animated film is projected to gross about $75 million in domestic ticket sales through Sunday, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. That would be a stellar opening for a movie that cost $75 million to make. It should also represent another victory for Universal's Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio responsible for the "Despicable Me" franchise.

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Illumination, run by Chris Meledandri, has tapped into a profitable business model by focusing on animated films that generally cost much less to produce than the output of rivals such as Disney-owned Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, which was recently acquired by NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion.

The last Illumination offering, "Minions," grossed more than $1.1 billion worldwide after costing just $74 million to make, following up on the commercial success of the first two "Despicable Me" movies.

Featuring the vocal contributions of Louis C.K. as a Jack Russell terrier, Kevin Hart as a rabbit, and Jenny Slate as a white Pomeranian, "Secret Life" envisions what pets do when their owners have left for the day. The comedy appears to have largely charmed critics so far, evidenced by a strong 84% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

"The Secret Life of Pets" should also benefit from the availability of kids on break from school for the summer and a marketing campaign that has courted grown-up animal lovers as well as children.

If it indeed turns out to be a major hit, "The Secret Life of Pets" would provide another welcome boost to an unpredictable year at the box office. Movies in the U.S. and Canada have grossed $5.6 billion this year, down 2.5% from the same time a year ago, according to the entertainment data firm comScore.

Hollywood is coming off a rocky July 4th weekend in which two big budget movies performed poorly – Warner Bros.'s "Legend of Tarzan" and Disney's Steven Spielberg-directed "The BFG."

But families have again generated reliably robust movie ticket sales this year, propelling "Finding Dory" to box-office dominance three weekends in a row. The "Finding Nemo" sequel has grossed $380 million in the U.S. and Canada, holding off live action rivals such as the would-be blockbusters "Independence Day: Resurgence" and "The Legend of Tarzan." "Dory" represents Disney's third animal-themed juggernaut this year, coming after the $1-billion worldwide gross for "Zootopia" and the $935-million haul for "The Jungle Book."

The only other wide release this weekend is 20th Century Fox's  R-rated comedy "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," expected to debut with $12 million to $14 million through Sunday. Zac Efron and and Adam Devine play hard-partying brothers who post an online ad to find their perfect female counterparts -- and get more than they bargain for when they meet characters played by Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza.

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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