Bad day in the barnyard

Times Staff Writer

Sounding a less than auspicious note for the future of hand-drawn animation at the Walt Disney Co., the studio's expensive "Home on the Range" took in just $14 million in its opening weekend, according to box office estimates Sunday.

The barnyard adventure landed in fourth place, according to preliminary projections, and was easily bested by the action fantasy "Hellboy," which opened at No. 1 with an estimated $23.5 million. Although Guillermo del Toro's effects-heavy "Hellboy" was made by Revolution Studios for a relatively moderate $66 million, Disney's "Home on the Range" cost at least $110 million.

That investment will take years to recoup, even with foreign release and DVD sales. Despite coming off a banner year, Disney is under increased scrutiny because of turmoil surrounding chief executive Michael Eisner and the collapse of contract renewal talks with Pixar. Animation is an expensive long-term investment under the best of circumstances, and Disney also has a lot riding on "The Alamo," which opens Friday. That film changed directors and cast after Disney balked at the original budget, and its Christmas release was postponed.

Although Disney is readying several of its own animated films in addition to the final two under its deal with Pixar, the company has no more fully hand-drawn movies in production, at least for the foreseeable future.

It wasn't the worst debut for a Disney animated film. The even more expensive "Treasure Planet," for example, landed with a thud in late 2002 with an opening weekend tally of $12.1 million and a total of $38.2 million. Among other animated disappointments, "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," from rival studio DreamWorks, opened about seven months later with $6.9 million and took in a U.S. total of $26.5 million. "Titan A.E.," from 20th Century Fox, also bombed with an opening of $9.4 million in June 2000 and an eventual U.S. total of $22.8 million.

But the performance of Disney animated features generally draws closer scrutiny because of the company's heritage, the cartoons of founder Walt Disney.

Despite this, studio spokesman Dennis Rice said Sunday, "The company has a full pipeline of animated movies. We will never abdicate our position as the undisputed leader of animation, whether it's movies that are co-productions or our own."

President of feature animation David Stainton noted that the company has slated "Chicken Little" to open next summer, and "A Day With Wilbur Robinson," based on the book by William Joyce, is on course for release in summer 2006. "Lilo and Stitch" creator-director Chris Sanders is at work on "American Dog," and veteran animator Glen Keane is preparing "Rapunzel Unbraided."

Stainton also said Dutch director Piet Kroon is working on the Hitchcock spoof "Fraidy Cat," and the company also has in development "Gnomeo and Juliet," with music by Elton John. All of these are planned as computer animated films, Stainton said.

In addition to those in-house projects, Stainton identified two acquisitions, "The Wild," directed by Charles "Spaz" Williams, and "Valiant," which he described as "a small pickup from the U.K."

Those films are in addition to the upcoming Pixar movies "The Incredibles" and "Cars."

Among other films that opened Friday, MGM's retooling of "Walking Tall," starring the Rock, bowed at No. 2 with about $15.3 million

, The audience for the updated version of the story, based on the life of the late Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, drew an audience that was 48% female. MGM distribution president Erik Lomis said sneak previews helped broaden the film's appeal.

Paramount's "The Prince and Me," starring Julia Stiles as serious minded med-school bound college senior who finds herself sidetracked by a fairy-tale romance, came in at No. 5 with about $10 million. Predictably, the film skewed 80% female with two-thirds under 25, according to Nancy Kirkpatrick, head of publicity at Paramount. The studio split the movie's $22 million production budget with Lions Gate Film.

As for "Hellboy," Revolution partner Tom Sherak praised director del Toro and lead actor Ron Perlman for delivering "the best-reviewed picture we've ever had." The audience was 62% male, and 52% was 25 and older. "We're going to go after the female audience this weekend," Sherak added, with ads that use "quotes from newspapers" and "show a little more of the love story, the humor," a tall order for a movie about the son of the devil, who has crossed over to do good deeds for humankind.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Preliminary results based on studio projections (in millions of dollars).

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total

*--*

*--* Hellboy $23.5 $23.5

Walking Tall $15.3 $15.3

Scooby-Doo 2 $15.1 $50

Home on the Range $14 $14

The Prince & Me $10 $10

The Passion of the Christ $9.9 $330.1

The Ladykillers $7 $23.4

Jersey Girl $5.1 $15.8

Dawn of the Dead $4.4 $51.5

Taking Lives $3.5 $27.5

*--*

Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.

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