Box Office: Yawns for Narnia, Tsuris for The Tourist

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20th Century Fox / Walden Media

A scene from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Where were all the Christians who were supposed to make The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the first big hit of December? The movie didn't roar; it mewled. And where were the pagans hiding? The romantic pairing of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in a spy thriller, The Tourist, should have coaxed pleasure seekers out of their Snuggies. Instead, it was the biggest wide-release nonstarter that either of the two stars has endured in years. That left a news hole, and Mark Wahlberg filled it as a scrappy boxer in The Fighter, a smash in a very limited release.

Dawn Treader, the third movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis' fantasy series for children, won a soft weekend at North American theaters with $24.7 million, according to early studio estimates. That's well below half of the $65.6 million that the original Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, picked up in its first three days in 2005, or the $55 million the second, Prince Caspian, earned when it opened in 2008. Fox, the franchise's new distributor after Disney dropped it, pitched Dawn Treader hard to the Evangelical community, hoping that the faithful would flock to another episode of adolescent adventure and religious allusion, with the leonine Aslan standing in for Jesus; and industry touts predicted a weekend of $40 million-plus. But not enough Christians came to see the lion — not in North America, anyway, despite a generous A-minus in the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers. Abroad, Dawn Treader did much better: an $81 million debut. Lewis wrote seven Narnia books; the next few weeks will tell if the film series will get to four.

The Tourist, a remake of the 2005 French film Anthony Zimmer, has two stars of guaranteed radiance. Jolie's Wanted opened above $50 million two years ago, and Salt started with $36 million this past summer, while three Depp movies have had debuts of more than $100 million. Even the wan, knotty Secret Window back in 2004 outgrossed The Tourist in its first three days. (Hell, Kick-Ass did better.) Nor did the film, which cost about $100 million to produce and earned a middling B mark from CinemaScore, make waves overseas — $8 million in some major markets. Critics torched the picture, but Johnny and Angelina ought to be review-proof by now. The Tourist may be one of those movies that audiences think of as less want-to-see than might-see. In a few months, at home, for next to nothing, on Netflix.

Among the wide-release runners-up, the Disney animated feature Tangled held strong with a modest 33% drop from last week; the fourth-place finisher, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, passed the $250 million mark domestically and is closing in on $750 million worldwide; and Denzel Washington's Unstoppable proved nearly that, with a 37% drop and about $75 million in North America.

Big releases like these grab most of their money when they open, with diminishing returns from each successive week's take. December films with an eye to Oscar do just the reverse: open in a few theaters and gradually expand, as word of mouth spreads among the art-house class, until they've reached the saturation point just as the Academy Award nominations are announced. That will be Jan. 25, and three films — each made for $20 million or less — are on that reverse track to contention.

The King's Speech, with Best Actor favorite Colin Firth as Britain's stammering monarch George VI, opened in a few theaters two weeks ago. Still on only six screens, it has amassed $1.5 million. Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller Black Swan, starring Best Actress front runner Natalie Portman as a young ballerina who is anxious about playing the lead role in Swan Lake, earned a wow-ish $1.4 million in 18 theaters in its premiere last weekend. This weekend it expanded to 90 venues and pulled in a zow-issimo $3.3 million, or more than the Cher film Burlesque did in 2,876 theaters. Rarely has a film on fewer than 100 screens cracked the weekend top 10; Black Swan finished sixth.

This week's challenger is The Fighter, a true-life sports inspirational in which Wahlberg, who also produced the film, stars with Christian Bale (another Oscar buzzee, for Supporting Actor), Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. Opening in four houses in New York City and Los Angeles, the movie took in $320,000, or $80,000 a theater. It's the year's third highest per-screen average, behind The King's Speech and Black Swan. Moviegoers elsewhere can catch up with The Fighter next week, when it expands to some 2,000 venues. By Feb. 27, Oscar night, all three films may still be in the limelight — while Dawn Treader and The Tourist will be heading for a video store near you.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, $24.5 million, first weekend
2. The Tourist, $17 million, first weekend
3. Tangled, $14.6 million; $115.6 million, third week
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, $8.5 million; $257.7 million, fourth week
5. Unstoppable, $3.75 million; $74.3 million, fifth week
6. Black Swan, $3.3 million; $5.6 million, second week
7. Burlesque, $3.2 million; $32.6 million, third week
8. Love & Other Drugs, $3 million; $27.6 million, third week
9. Due Date, $2.5 million; $94.9 million, sixth week
10. Megamind, $2.5 million; $140.2 million, sixth week