Rango Not Bang-o at the B.O.; Matt Damon Gets Re-Bourne

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Industrial Light & Magic / Paramount Pictures

With Johnny Depp as the lizard who becomes sheriff of a town called Dirt, Rango shot the competition to smithereens. But it couldn't blow away the movie ghosts of 2010. The first animated feature from director Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) and the special-effects sorcerers at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, Rango won the weekend at North American theaters with $38 million, according to early studio estimates. That gave the western comedy the best opening weekend since TRON: Legacy's $44 million the week before Christmas. It was far less, though, than the $50 million debut that many box office swamis had predicted.

In this first weekend after the Oscars — the unofficial start of Hollywood's hopes for the new year — four films opened. The Adjustment Bureau, a sci-fi–thriller love story starring Matt Damon, finished second with $20.9 million. Beastly, another attempt at a Twilight-style teen-romance franchise, was third with $10.1 million, a bit above expectations. Far behind, in 11th place, was Topher Grace's '80s-retro rom-com Take Me Home Tonight, with $3.5 million. That left the moguls with sour-gut rumblings as the box office continued its months-long record of underachievement.

Like a shy high school girl with hopes for the prom, the industry has been waiting since December for the princely kiss of a hit movie. The same period last year give birth to a host of blockbusters (Sherlock Holmes, the Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel, Valentine's Day), including two films that took in more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office: Avatar at Christmas and, exactly a year ago this weekend, Alice in Wonderland. Since last summer, only the seventh Harry Potter episode has grossed more than $200 million in the domestic market, and no film released in 2011 has yet hit $100 million, though Disney's Gnomeo & Juliet, Seth Rogen's The Green Hornet and the Adam Sandler movie Just Go with It should soon reach that mark. In 15 of the past 16 weeks, the box office take has been lower this year than last.

Hollywood needs a savior, and was hoping Rango would be the one. After all, it's got Depp, a proven star for young viewers (the Pirates films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), exchanging his Mad Hat from Alice for a sagebrush Stetson. The movie won enthusiastic reviews, with an 88% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And this is, after all, a freakin' cartoon, a genre that mines box office gold; five animated features were among last year's top-grossing movies.

But Rango isn't really a family-audience movie. It sports a sense of humor as dry as Dirt; it takes its plot inspiration from films like Chinatown and Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, which don't typically interest kids; and it is at least as admirable for the amazingly realistic scales of its reptile population — for the pleasures of its textures — as for the low comedy. Rango runs the risk of being too hip for the room, as shown by the abysmal C-plus rating it got from CinemaScore's poll of exiting viewers. Further, the movie carries a hefty price tag of about $135 million. That's more than the cumulative budgets of five other films on this weekend's top 10: Beastly, Hall Pass, Unknown, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and the season's one surprise smash, The King's Speech, which enjoyed an Oscar victory lap with another top 10 weekend and more than $275 million in the worldwide till.

The Damon movie did pretty well, improving on the likable star's recent box office lemons. It's based on a story by Philip K. Dick (whose fiction inspired Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report) about a man who gets a glimpse at the unseen angels who determine our lives. Writer-director George Nolfi expanded his movie's constituency beyond a sci-fi base by adding a love interest (Emily Blunt) and by making Damon run a lot, as he does in the Jason Bourne franchise. The result was Damon's best opening for a non-Bourne, non-Oceans starring role since The Departed in 2006. (We count the actor's contribution to True Grit in the supporting category.) The film found considerable adult appeal — 73% of the audience was over 30 — and managed a so-so CinemaScore rating of B.

Alas, B is about the best grade Hollywood can give its own performance for 2011 thus far, compared with last year's. And that's B as in Behind.

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

1. Rango, $38 million, first weekend
2. The Adjustment Bureau, $20.9 million, first weekend
3. Beastly, $10.1 million, first weekend
4. Hall Pass, $9 million; $27 million, second week
5. Gnomeo & Juliet, $6.9 million; $83.7 million, fourth week
6. Unknown, $6.6 million; $53.1 million, third week
7. The King's Speech, $6.501 million; $123.8 million, 15th week
8. Just Go with It, $6.500 million; $88.2 million, fourth week
9. I Am Number Four, $5.7 million; $46.4 million, third week
10. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, $4.3 million; $68.9 million, fourth week