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'Finding Dory' expected to jolt sluggish summer box office

'Finding Dory' expected to jolt sluggish summer box office
Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, in Disney-Pixar's "Finding Dory." (Pixar/Disney)

The forgetful blue fish of Pixar's "Finding Dory" is poised to boost the U.S. box office this weekend, and make the sluggish start to this summer's movie season a distant memory.

The long-awaited sequel to "Finding Nemo" is expected to gross as much as $120 million in ticket sales from the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have reviewed audience tracking surveys. That means it has a chance to deliver the biggest opening ever for Disney-owned Pixar, besting the $110 million "Toy Story 3" nabbed in the summer of 2010.

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The studio says it expects $100 million or more from the film's debut. Such a powerful opening would be welcome news for cinemas suffering from a lackluster summer so far, with movies like "Warcraft" and "Neighbors 2" faltering domestically. Summer ticket sales so far are down 22% industrywide compared with the same time a year ago.

It should also help dispel fears that audiences are tired of sequels, a concern stoked by a rash of movies that failed to live up to the originals, including "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "X-Men: Apocalypse" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows."

Those worries were partly assuaged last weekend after the success of Warner Bros.'s "The Conjuring 2," which opened to a strong $40 million. If "Finding Dory" and "The Conjuring 2" are any indication, audiences will still flock to sequels in droves as long as there's positive buzz to fuel interest. "Finding Dory's" prospects are surely helped by stellar reviews and continued fondness for the original.

Released 13 years ago, "Finding Nemo" was a massive hit. The computer-animated movie opened to $70 million and ended its original domestic run with $339 million. Including international box office and a 2012 rerelease, the film's worldwide box office total stands at $937 million.

The new movie's story focuses on Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), the sidekick from the first film who suffers from short-term memory loss. It will play in 4,305 North American theaters this weekend, making it the widest domestic release ever for a Pixar or Disney animated film.

The only other major movie heading into wide release this weekend is the Warner Bros. buddy comedy "Central Intelligence," which is expected to do solid business thanks to the star power of Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson.

The PG-13 New Line Cinema and Universal Pictures action-comedy features Hart as an office worker who learns his old high school friend (Johnson) works for the CIA. The picture is likely to open with $30 million in the U.S. and Canada, which would be a respectable number considering the huge competition from Dory.

Hart is one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, powering the "Ride Along" and "Think Like a Man" movies. Johnson has proved to be a draw in his own right thanks to the "Fast & Furious" series and action movies like "San Andreas." The movie, which cost $50 million to produce, is hoping to attract a diverse crowd including African Americans and Latinos.

Universal Pictures is handling the international release for "Central Intelligence," while Warner Bros. is distributing it in the U.S.

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

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