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Movie projector: 'Princess and the Frog' and 'Invictus' will need strong word of mouth

December 10, 2009 |  3:28 pm

"The Princess and the Frog" Walt Disney Studios' first hand-drawn animated feature in six years probably won't rival the debuts of any recent Pixar or DreamWorks computer-generated hits, though it is sure to top the box office this weekend.

Although ticket sales for family movies are often difficult to predict because children aren't included in pre-release surveys, people who have seen the data say "The Princess and the Frog" will probably bring in $25 million to $30 million in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through Sunday. That's less than any movie from Disney's Pixar Animation Studios since the original "Toy Story" in 1994 and smaller than any release from competitor DreamWorks Animation since its 2006 flop "Flushed Away."

However, for Burbank-based Disney Animation Studios, which produced "Princess," an opening of more than $26 million would mark an improvement over its last two pictures, the computer-animated disappointments "Bolt" and "Meet the Robinsons."

Unlike nearly every recent animated release, "The Princess and the Frog" is not playing on any digital 3-D screens, putting it at a disadvantage because it cannot command premium ticket prices.

Unless the opening is much bigger than expected, "Princess" will need to play strongly for several weeks to become a hit. There's good reason for Disney to be optimistic about that prospect, however, because  families movies usually do very well when children are out of school for the holidays. And this Christmas there's only one other family picture, 20th Century Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," opening before the end of the year.

In addition, "Princess and the Frog" has earned mostly positive reviews, with critics eagerly welcoming the return to the classic Disney style of hand-drawn animation and Broadway songs. In the last two weeks, the film's limited run at two theaters in Los Angeles and New York, where ticket prices are as high as $50 for an "experience" that includes activities beyond the film, has generated a healthy $3.6 million.

Disney will also launch the movie this weekend in Austria, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and Venezuela.

The other picture opening wide Friday, "Invictus," will also rely on strong buzz. The historical drama, directed by Clint Eastwood, about an unlikely partnership between Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) and the captain of the South African rugby team is on track to open to $10 million to $15 million, a so-so start. It cost Warner Bros. and its financing partner, Spyglass Entertainment, which covered 25% of the budget, about $60 million to produce.

Previously successful Eastwood-directed dramas, such as last year's "Gran Torino," have had great staying power at the box office, and Warner is hoping "Invictus" will do the same. The movie has earned strong reviews and is considered a contender for Golden Globes and Oscar nominations.

In limited release, Paramount opens "The Lovely Bones," Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestselling novel, at three theaters in Los Angeles and New York. The movie has gotten weak reviews, however, and it remains to be seen how audiences respond as it heads toward a nationwide release in mid-January.

Weinstein Co. is also opening in a handful of theaters the drama "A Single Man," starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, for which it has some awards hopes.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: A scene from "The Princess and the Frog." Credit: Walt Disney Studios.