Can you feel the love this weekend? The 3D re-release of 'The Lion King' turned out to be a roaring success beyond anyone's expectations. The updated version of the 1994 Disney classic debuted at No. 1, snatching the box office throne from 'Contagion' and clawing past three other newcomers ('Drive,''Straw Dogs,' and 'I Don't Know How She Does It') to rule at the cineplex.
According to studio estimates, 'Lion King' (which is earning a brief re-release in order to promote the film's debut on Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray in a couple weeks) earned an estimated $29.3 million, about twice what experts were predicting. The precedent was Disney's re-release of 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' in 3D in 2009, a double feature that opened with $12.5 million on 1,745 screens. But that program's length meant fewer plays in theaters (and was probably daunting to parents of younger kids with short attention spans), and it opened on almost 600 fewer screens than 'Lion King.'
Plus, there's the extra emotional resonance of 'Lion King,' a more mythic story and an even more beloved franchise than 'Toy Story,' one that parents who loved the original when they were kids could now take their own young children to see. This is, after all, a film that was, for a long time, the most successful animated feature ever made, and it's still the most highest-grossing hand-drawn cartoon ever. This weekend's release pushes it to No. 3 among all-time animated features in domestic release, surpassing the lifetime total earned by 'Finding Nemo.' (Only 'Shrek 2' and 'Toy Story 3' have earned more in American theaters.) 'Lion King's domestic total now stands at $357.8 million, and its worldwide total is $817.5 million.
Last week's champ, 'Contagion,' slipped to second place with an estimated $14.5 million. That's a modest decline of just 35 percent from last weekend's debut. In 10 days, the epidemic thriller has earned $44.2 million.
'Drive' debuted in third place with a solid $11.0 million, according to estimates, which is about what was expected. That's actually pretty good considering the crime drama's relative lack of star power (Sorry, Ryan Gosling, but you're not a big box office name... yet) and its polarizing word-of-mouth (particularly over its extreme violence, which is not hinted at by the movie's somewhat misleading marketing campaign). Still, the film had tremendous buzz, strong reviews and appeal for grown-ups who prefer their action thrillers on the more thoughtful side.
In fourth place, 'The Help' was still going strong with an estimated $6.4 million. In its sixth week of release, it added 79 more theaters to its run, resulting in a decline of just 28 percent from last weekend. The period dramedy has earned $47.4 million to date.
Opening at No. 5 was 'Straw Dogs' with an estimated $5.0 million. Predictions had the remake opening around $8 to $10 million, but it suffered from some of the same box office weaknesses as 'Drive,' which was a stronger contender for the same set of moviegoers. (Both films have limited star power, a blend of philosophical musings and extreme violence, and an ad campaign that doesn't really hint at how extreme the violence actually is.)
The weekend's final wide release, 'I Don't Know How She Does It,' opened outside the top five. Its estimated $4.5 million opening, good for sixth place, falls well below even the modest predictions that suggested a $7 to $8 million opening. The Sarah Jessica Parker chick flick had limited appeal for men, while the working moms it was meant to attract were apparently all taking their kids to see 'Lion King.'
Overall, box office for the year is still down 3.8 percent for the year, at $7.6 million vs. $7.9 million at this time in 2010. September is usually a lackluster month for ticket sales, but this September is already up 6.3 percent over last September ($380.3 million vs. $357.6 million).
The full top 10:
1. 'The Lion King,' $29.3 million (2,330 screens), new release
2. 'Contagion,' $14.5 million (3,222), $44.2 million total
3. 'Drive,' $11.0 million (2,886), new release
4. 'The Help,' $6.4 million (3,014), $147.5 million
5. 'Straw Dogs,' $5.0 million (2,408), new release
6. 'I Don't Know How She Does It,' $4.5 million (2,476), new release
7. 'The Debt,' $2.9 million (1,831), $26.5 million
8. 'Warrior,' $2.8 million (1,883), $9.9 million
9. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' $2.6 million (2,340), $171.6 million
10. 'Colombiana,' $2.3 million (1,933), $33.3 million
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.
Photo credits: FilmDistrict ('Drive'), The Weinstein Company ('I Don't Know How She Does It')