Late last week, Pixar faced a rare bout of skepticism.
For the first time this decade, the Walt Disney Co.-owned animation studio with an unblemished record of commercial and critical success was releasing a new film, "Cars 2," that was expected to underperform at the box office. Reviews were largely negative, and pre-release surveys indicated the film would have an unimpressive debut of close to $50 million.
"Was it a scary proposition for a moment in time? Yes, it was," said Chuck Viane, Walt Disney Studios' distribution president.
But the "Disney-Pixar miracle," as Viane called it, happened again. The anthropomorphic automobile tale raced past expectations to take in a solid $68 million from Friday through Sunday, according to an estimate from Disney. It led the box office on a busy weekend that also saw the low-budget Cameron Diaz comedy "Bad Teacher" debut to a healthy $31 million.
The only bad news was for Warner Bros.' superhero movie "Green Lantern," which saw ticket sales tumble 65% to $18.4 million on its second weekend, a sign of bad word-of-mouth after an unimpressive debut.
Though it landed far behind the opening of last year's more popular Pixar sequel "Toy Story 3," which debuted to $110.3 million, "Cars 2" was right in line with other recent Pixar releases such as 2009's "Up" and 2008's "Wall-E," which debuted with $68.1 million and $63.1 million, respectively. Accounting for five years of inflation and the new benefit of premium 3-D ticket prices, the take was close to the $60.1-million launch of the original "Cars" in 2006.
That movie was a merchandising bonanza for Disney, resulting in nearly $10 billion in product sales mostly to young boys, and the sequel is largely intended to rev up that engine. At least 300 toys recently rolled out in stores.
But the new film, which cost about $200 million to produce, also looks like a success in its own right. Audiences, largely composed of families with children under age 12, disagreed with critics and rated the movie A-. It's a sign that, like every Pixar movie this decade, "Cars 2" should enjoy a long box-office life and exceed $200 million domestically.
Early returns indicate that the picture, which features a globe-spanning storyline, will be a bigger hit overseas. It opened in 18 foreign markets this weekend and took in $42.9 million, enjoying the biggest ever Pixar openings in Russia and Brazil and the second highest ever in Mexico, behind only "Toy Story 3." Viane called it "a foregone conclusion" that "Cars 2" will significantly exceed the $218-million foreign gross of the first "Cars."
"Bad Teacher" had a strong start for a movie produced for only $19 million by Sony Pictures. Stars Diaz and Justin Timberlake drew an audience that was 63% women.
Coming on the heels of the surprise hit "Bridesmaids," which has grossed a phenomenal $146.7 million, "Bad Teacher" provides more evidence that women can be attracted to raunchy R-rated comedies, traditionally considered a genre for young men.
However, there's reason to doubt that the new film will have a long box office run like "Bridesmaids." Opening-weekend moviegoers didn't seem to like "Bad Teacher," resulting in a weak average grade of C+.