Cars 2 at the Box Office: Pixcar or Ishcar?

Cars 2 at the Box Office: Pixcar or Ishcar?
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 and his yokel pal Mater 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 $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. . 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 See TIME’s Summer Entertaiment Guide. See the 25 best blogs of 2011.