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Robot film 'Wall-E' likely to appeal to humans of all ages

Pixar's flick is primed to lead the box office. 'Wanted,' a thriller, is expected to be No. 2.

June 27, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Box-office flops are supposed to be unavoidable in the up-and-down movie business. Even Will Smith has an occasional "The Legend of Bagger Vance" on his resume.

But after eight features in 13 years, the gang at Pixar Animation Studios still hasn't gotten that memo. Pixar's streak of hits -- starting with its 1995 debut feature "Toy Story" and continuing through last summer's "Ratatouille" -- is about to become nine. Projector can't recall a run like this since his days as a nine-ball hustler in North Beach.

Disney-Pixar's animated "Wall-E," opening today at about 4,000 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, should top this weekend's charts with more than $50 million in ticket sales, based on consumer tracking surveys.

Some Hollywood executives, noting the industry's robust results this summer, say the film might even approach $75 million, setting a new record for Pixar. Projector isn't quite that bullish, but expects "Wall-E" to rank among Pixar's higher openers.

The G-rated movie, produced for an estimated $180 million, stands poised to flourish despite its considerable hurdles, including limited dialogue -- the robots make noises but talk sparsely -- and the backdrop of an environmental apocalypse on the future Earth.

The hero is Wall-E, a rubbish-collecting robot left behind on the planet in the year 2700 who falls for a sleek search robot named Eve.

Mark Zoradi, president of Disney's motion picture group, doesn't think the atypical aspects of "Wall-E" will affect its box-office performance. He believes that audiences will find the humorous, love-struck Wall-E character appealing and fun, and that fans will show faith in the Pixar brand, eager to see what the computer animators have created with a fresh milieu: robots in space.

" 'Wall-E' combines a very comedic element attractive to both kids and adults as well as a very emotional and engaging story, and when those two elements come together animation really excels," Zoradi said. "Pixar has done this for the past eight movies and 'Wall-E' looks to have accomplished the same level of creativity."

Each Pixar picture has ranked No. 1 in its first weekend of wide release. "The Incredibles," the fall 2004 superhero send-up, opened to a studio-best of $70.5 million (equal to $80.4 million at today's ticket prices). "Ratatouille," Pixar's rodent chef comedy, posted the label's softest U.S. opening in recent years, at $47 million.

Disney, which bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion, has been marketing the new film by humanizing Wall-E, as it were, showing off his quirky charms in its trailers and sending him out to be interviewed in person -- er, in robot -- by giggly hosts on morning TV talk shows.

Critics are heaping praise on "Wall-E," from writer-director Andrew Stanton, whose 2003 father-son fish story "Finding Nemo" became Pixar's biggest overall success with $866.6 million in worldwide ticket sales. The Rotten Tomatoes website on Thursday tabulated 97% of reviews for "Wall-E" as positive. Tracking surveys show keen interest from across the demographic spectrum.

What could keep the film from posting Pixar's top opening, however, is the fierce competition: the new Angelina Jolie thriller "Wanted," from Universal Pictures; and "Kung Fu Panda," from DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. and distributor Paramount Pictures, a holdover hit in the family genre.

The R-rated "Wanted," which Universal rescheduled from March into the heart of summer, has been picking up buzz from film geeks since the first trailer ran last fall with "American Gangster." The stylized, over-the-top adaptation of a graphic novel stacks up as an ideal alternative to the wholesome "Wall-E."

"Wanted" got its hard-earned R for "strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality." By ratings board standards, "pervasive" means a whole lot of cursing.

The movie, which Universal says was produced for about $75 million (others estimate a bit more), is about a slacker cubicle slave, played by James McAvoy from "Atonement," recruited by the sultry-yet-dangerous Jolie to join a secret society of justice-seeking assassins. Projector, who gets approached only by run-of-the- mill headhunters, is jealous already. Morgan Freeman plays the underground group's wise, enigmatic leader -- essentially the tour guide who explains the rules of the game.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov of the Russian hit "Night Watch," the flick has garnered solid reviews for genre fare (Rotten Tomatoes listed 72% as positive), although some highbrow critics dismiss it as shallow, hyperkinetic nonsense -- like that's such a bad thing.

The movie, which has momentum in this week's tracking surveys, appears stronger than "Wall-E" with under-25 adults, though it lags with the over-25 crowd. Jolie in a tail-kicking role is proving to be a draw with males and females alike.

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