rihanna and jim parson in homePoor Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. Any other week, the estimated $34.6 million opening of their R-rated comedy "Get Hard" would be a huge coup. Instead, they had to settle for coming in a distant second to a surprise kiddie cartoon smash about a little girl and an inept alien.

"Home," the fourth film from DreamWorks Animation in little over a year, was supposed to race neck-and-neck at best with "Get Hard." After all, the film got middling reviews for its relative lack of originality and unlikely voice cast (Jim Parsons and Rihanna?). Plus, it comes from DWA, the anti-Pixar, an animation house known in recent years for oversaturating the market and for costly flops (most recently, "Penguins of Madagascar"). No one expected it to do better than $30 million.

So how did "Home" manage a stunning debut estimated at $54 million? Maybe its perceived weaknesses were actually strengths. Here are seven secret weapons behind the alien-invasion comedy's success.

1. Title Change. "Home" is an awfully generic title. It's also not the title the property came with. Like many DreamWorks cartoons, it's based on a children's book. In this case, it's Adam Rex's, "The True Meaning of Smekday." Normally, studios like to try to keep the titles of book adaptations in order to capitalize on pre-existing brand awareness. In this case, though, it made sense to ditch the title for a much less awkward, more marquee-friendly one. There's no way a movie with "Smekday" in its name was going to earn $54 million.

2. Word-of-Mouth. Critics tend to find DreamWorks movies formulaic; they tend to be about outsiders who learn to cooperate in order to save their world. "Home" fits this pattern (the alien even looks like the cute, snaggle-toothed dragon from DWA's "How to Train Your Dragon" movies), and it borrows from several other familiar kid-meets-alien tales (see below). So it got middling reviews from critics. But kids and families who saw it really liked it and recommended it strongly, as is clear from the A grade it received at CinemaScore.

3. Familiar Premise. The human-child-befriends-childlike-alien premise has been done before, in movies from "E.T." to "Lilo & Stitch." Then again, maybe it helped that the premise was familiar to kids from other well-known family-friendly movies. It may have helped the film overcome the "Smekday" issue of its arcane and eccentric source material.

4. 'Toon Drought. Yes, DWA has been flooding the zone over the past year. Still, there hasn't been a new animated feature in theaters since "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" a couple months ago. And there won't be another until Pixar's "inside Out" in June. So "Home" was poised to benefit from the lack of direct competition.

5. Voice Talent. Want to know how to get Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez songs on your movie's soundtrack? Cast the pop stars as voice actors in the film. Sure, the husky-voiced Rihanna may not be the first choice for the role of a little girl, but suspension of disbelief is a lot easier with a cartoon. Jim Parsons is probably not as well known to kids as his female co-stars (do kids watch "The Big Bang Theory"?) Then again, who better than the performer behind TV nerd-king Sheldon Cooper to play an alien who has trouble communicating with and relating to humans? Plus, the presence of Parsons and Steve Martin in the cast probably reassured a lot of parents that the movie would be funny.

6. Spring Weather. After months of brutal winter conditions in much of the country, spring finally sprung this weekend, allowing hibernating moviegoers to emerge for the first time in ages. As a result, a rising tide lifted all boats, enabling box office success not just for "Home" but for pretty much every movie currently playing at the multiplex. On the whole, domestic box office was up 16 percent over last week, and the estimated $152.2 million worth of tickets sold was the highest cumulative total since "Fifty Shades of Grey" lured moviegoers out of the cold six weeks ago.

7. Counterprogramming. The strategy of trying to target a demographic otherwise not served by the weekend's expected winner -- in this case, "Home" aiming at families and young girls while the R-rated "Get Hard" went after adults and young men -- hasn't been too productive lately. Two weekends ago, older, male-oriented action thriller "Run All Night" flopped against younger, girl-oriented "Cinderella," and last weekend, "The Gunman" repeated the scenario against "Insurgent." But this weekend, there really was something for all the fair-weather moviegoers to enjoy, so "Home" and "Get Hard" both did well. So did still-strong "Insurgent" and "Cinderella" (this weekend's No. 3 and No. 4 films), even though both films are attracting some of the same tween-girl audience, and "Cinderella" and "Home" are both big family-oriented movies with an emphasis on girls. Even "It Follows," the cult horror hit that expanded this weekend from 32 screens to 1,218, performed well, coming in fifth with an estimated $4.0 million, very good for a horror film with no star power or franchise familiarity -- and in a week when young women (who make up a preponderance of horror viewers) already had a lot to choose from.

Even all these reasons aren't really enough to explain how "Home" managed to open a jaw-dropping $20 million above even the most optimistic projections. Sure, word-of-mouth was great, but the movie was doing well even before that, with strong showings at Thursday night early-bird screenings and robust pre-sales on Fandango. Maybe "Home" was just an incredible fluke. Or maybe there's some worldwide alien mind-control conspiracy at work...
categories Movies, Box Office, Sci-Fi