Walt Disney Pictures is making a lot of marketing noise with its upcoming "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," a live-action comedy about a pampered purebred that gets lost in Mexico.
And the little yelper, being unleashed in theaters Oct. 3, could show plenty of box-office bite despite detractors who say the marketing materials perpetuate ethnic stereotypes.
The PG-rated family film features Piper Perabo and Jamie Lee Curtis and a voice cast headed by Drew Barrymore along with such Latino stars as George Lopez, Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin and Andy Garcia.
Early tracking is solid but not stellar among general moviegoers -- Sony Pictures' teen hipster romantic comedy "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," which opens on the same weekend, has lower awareness but higher interest levels. But kids and moms, the demographics that turn talking-animal flicks like "Alvin and the Chipmunks" into hits, are keen on it.
Latinos, who tend to be among the most avid moviegoing groups in the U.S., could give "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" a huge boost, especially in urban markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, Latinos saw an average of 10.8 movies in 2007, compared with 7.9 for Caucasians and 7.8 for African Americans.
But some think Disney's marketing could also spark a backlash.
"The movie's generalizations about Hispanics and its stereotypical depictions of Mexicans will not get a positive response from most of the 46 million Hispanics living in the U.S.," said Anton Diego, president of EveryMundo Inc., a marketing firm that helps businesses target Latinos online.
The trailer, Diego notes, opens with the voice of a Chihuahua called Papi describing how his descendants fought alongside Aztec soldiers, then pans to footage of Machu Picchu in Peru -- a symbol of the Incan Empire located on a different continent. The music in the trailer is mambo, which originated in Cuba, he adds.
A viral video campaign (with no mention of Disney or the movie title, in today's fashionable stealth style) has elicited groans for its portrayal of Chihuahuas as revolutionaries declaring "No mas!" to being carried in purses -- but "Mas!" to all-you-can-eat taco bars.
Disney declined to comment on the movie's marketing.
Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said he saw two screenings of the completed film after hearing a complaint about the project and found nothing offensive.
"It's not supposed to ignite the world with social consciousness, but this is a clean, entertaining picture with an all-star cast that brings the Latino presence to a whole new height," Nogales said. "It's a marvelous little film that is going to send everybody off to buy their own Chihuahuas."
The marketing effort appears to be clicking with broad audiences.
The trailer, featuring a Busby Berkeley-type musical number, has been popular since it premiered with this summer's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," according to executives at Disney and rival studios.
Disney has also raised awareness for the movie, originally titled "South of the Border," with a poster campaign in various cities featuring a Chihuahua and the simple message "Heel," done in the style of artist Shepard Fairey's "Hope" signs for Barack Obama.
The company's more traditional movie posters are plastered with a series of cheeky tag lines: "I, Chihuahua," "You Want Some of This?" "Actual Size" and, of course, "50% Warrior. 50% Lover. 100% Chihuahua."
Exhibitors and Wall Street analysts expect "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" to gross $40 million to $50 million domestically during its full run, targets that are almost certain to rise as the opening draws near. If the buzz turns out to be really good, "Chihuahua" could end up nipping at the heels of "Chipmunks" ($217 million domestically).
With summer over, current films such as "Burn After Reading," "Righteous Kill" and "The Women" have been tailored toward adults, said Bruce J. Olson, president of the Marcus Theatres chain, based in Milwaukee.
"There is a pent-up demand among families, so the market is ripe for 'Chihuahua' to be the first sleeper hit of the fall," he said.
Chris White, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, noted that DreamWorks/Paramount's over-the-top, R-rated action comedy "Tropic Thunder" drew fire from some groups for supposedly stereotyping the mentally disabled, but it opened at No. 1 and topped the box office for three weeks in late summer.
"I'm not a hard-core dog fan," White said, "but even I think 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' is a cute concept and I definitely want to see it."