Cars 2 at the Box Office: Pixcar or Ishcar?

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Disney / Pixar

Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) in 'Cars 2'

The critics reacted like heartbroken suitors, but Pixar's Cars 2 got its motor running at about the same pace of the 2006 original. The G-rated sequel earned $68 million, according to early estimates, to win the weekend at the North American box office, while the R-rated Bad Teacher stormed into second place with $31 million.

After 11 consecutive animated features that scored as both popular hits and reviewers' sweethearts, Pixar was bound at some point to produce a movie that was either too hip for the room — an ambitious entry that enthralled critics and no one else — or too calculated to please the scribes. Every Pixar film from Toy Story in 1995 to Toy Story 3 last year garnered raves galore; Toy Story 3 snagged a 99% favorable rating from the aggregate movie-review site Rotten Tomatoes. Cars 2, directed by Pixar's top creative honcho John Lasseter, pulled a truly Rotten 38%, as if the movie were less the usual, spiffy Pixcar than an artistic failure of Ishtar proportions — Ishcar.

Many critics appended their pans with the more-in-sorrow observation that the company had sullied its hallowed image — Hollywood folks call it diluting the brand — with a confection that was essentially a feature-length promo for all the merchandise that Pixar and its parent outfit, Disney, will be peddling this summer. The first Cars, not the most popular or beloved Pixar feature, had found ardent advocates among preteen boys and, in the process, moved billions of dollars in toy cars. The sequel transports Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his yokel pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) from the Western American enclave of Radiator Springs to Formula One venues in Europe and Asia, thus targeting kids around the world for a rally at the toy store. That might display good business sense — the Mater character has shown his rusty luster by fronting five other shorts and video games, plus TV series — but, the critics charged, it was a strategy more appropriate to Mattel than to Pixar.

The naysayers might have been shouting in their own garage, with the door down; all their wailing kept nobody away. The first three days of Cars 2 matched the openings for Pixar's effusively esteemed WALL•E and Up, and early moviegoers polled by CinemaScore gave the new film a hearty A-minus. (The first Cars aced a "A.") The $68 million is disappointing only in comparison to the $110.3 million earned last summer by Toy Story 3; sequels generally open stronger than start-up movies.

The real question is how sturdy Cars 2's chassis is. The studio's films have long legs, and the total theatrical gross of a typical Pixar picture is about four times its opening-weekend take. Finding Nemo finished with a multiple of 4.8, Ratatouille with a 4.4, Up with a 4.3 and the first Cars with a 4.06. Curiously, the Pixar feature that earned the lowest multiple of its first weekend is the one that many viewers (critics and real people) think is the studio's best: WALL•E. So nobody knows anything.

And few predicted that Bad Teacher, starring Diaz as a pedagogue with dirty looks and language, would do as well as it did. Made for just $20 million (Cars 2 cost at least 10 times as much), it succeeded by appealing to the Diaz demographic: 64% of its audience was female, 57% 25 and older. The comedy's success was widely credited to savvy marketing. As Sony publicist Steve Elzer proudly shared: "On National Teacher Appreciation Day we sent apples with Post-It notes that read 'Eat Me' to top radio DJs in key markets." Inspirations like this one are why movie guys are paid big bucks.

Bad Teacher managed a 45% rating from Rotten Tomatoes — better than Cars 2, though still pretty weak. And the underachieving C-plus from CinemaScore hints that the movie may not stick around through summer school. But who can doubt the current taste for raunchy farces when the top eight slots on a summer weekend contain three of them? The Hangover Part II, in seventh place, has earned well over a half-billion dollars worldwide in its first month; the femme-centric Bridesmaids is nearing $150 million in North America alone; and its weekly decline is so modest — 24% this weekend, compared with, say, a disastrous 66% for last week's action-film winner Green Lantern — that the Kristen Wiig bridal-panic comedy may be around forever.

In indie action, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris cruised to tenth place and a six-week total of $28.6 million, the highest gross for an Allen film since the 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, with Brad Pitt as a stern dad who gets a vision of the next world, expanded nicely to 215 screens and took 12th place for a five-week cume of $5.9 million. In its second week, Buck, the warm docu-portrait of horse-whisperer Buck Brannaman, earned about $300,000 in 54 theaters to finish just behind Beginners, with Christopher Plummer as Ewan McGregor's old gay dad. Getting a boost from the coincidence of Gay Pride Day and the passage of a gay-marriage bill in New York State, Beginners amassed $400,000 and has cleared $1.5 million in its fourth week.

The big new indie release was the concert doc Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (suggested full title: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop Complaining That NBC Wanted to Push His 11:30 Show Back a Half Hour to Midnight, Even Though When He Signed With TBS He Pushed George Lopez's 11 P.M. Show Back to Midnight). It opened to a pallid $105,000 in 24 theaters, or the approximate box-office equivalent of his current TV ratings: dead last in his class, behind Jay Leno, Nightline, David Letterman and The Daily Show. The spectacle of a multimillionaire comic milking his victim role played no better on the big screen. Minuscule grosses aside, O'Brien might consider losing the beard and the grudge, and return to being funny-silly-smart. Talk about diluting the brand.

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

1. Cars 2, $68 million, first weekend
2. Bad Teacher, $31 million, first weekend
3. Green Lantern, $18.35 million; $89.3 million, second week
4. Super 8, $12.1 million; $95.2 million, third week
5. Mr. Popper's Penguins, $10.3 million; $39.5 million, second week
6. X-Men: First Class, $6.6 million; $132.8 million, fourth week
7. The Hangover Part II, $5.9 million; $243.9 million, fifth week
8. Bridesmaids, $5.4 million; $146.7 million, seventh week
9. Pirates of the Caribbean, $4.7 million; $229.1 million, sixth week
10. Midnight in Paris, $4.5 million; $28.6 million, sixth week