Twilight Vamps the Muppets

A Children's Crusade of three new kid-themed movies couldn't stop Bella and Edward from taking the biggest Thanksgiving bite

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Andrew Cooper / Summit Entertainment

As if it were Halloween on Thanksgiving, the kids came calling en masse at movie theaters over this long weekend. Hollywood, hoping to grab the family audience, opened a trio of critically acclaimed movies for the very young — The Muppets, Arthur Christmas and Hugo — to join last week’s paedocentric penguin cartoon Happy Feet Two. But none of the youth-themed movies could diffuse the postcoital glow of gentleman vampire Edward and his human-teen beloved Bella.

(READ: Erika Christakis on ‘the harsh bigotry of Twilight Haters‘)

According to studios’ preliminary estimates, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1 topped the North American box office with $42 million for the weekend, and $62.3 million for the five-day holiday frame. And down in Indieville, a similar congestion of critically acclaimed films — The Descendants, A Dangerous Method, The Artist and My Week With Marilyn — brought latte-sippers into the art houses in tasteful mini-droves.

(SEE whether The Twilight Saga is on the all-TIME 100 Movies list—just kidding!)

The Thanksgiving weekend total was $234 million, down from a record $273 million in 2009 — when Twilight: New Dawn, second in the series, was the champ — and a very healthy $257 million last year. That was when films similar to this weekend’s top two entries finished in the lead. The first of a two-part finale to a magical teen franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, held on its in second week to defeat a new Disney movie for kids: the animated feature Tangled. This time, The Muppets took second place. But whereas Thanksgiving 2010 also served up a trio of debuts aimed at adults (Burlesque, Love and Other Drugs and Faster), the three new kids on the block this weekend all offered family fare.

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Moguls know that, as the young-male block abandons the social ritual of moviegoing for the solitary obsession of video-gaming, kids and their parents have become the most reliable demographic. Hollywood is playing to its strength, even if releasing four children’s films in six days amounted to a criminal glutting of the market — an overcrowded schoolyard that risked a kind of kindergarten harakiri.

Losing an expected two-thirds of its audience from the blitzkrieg tally of its opening weekend, Breaking Dawn 1 still outgrossed the combined earnings of the second- and third-place weekend finishers, The Muppets and Happy Feet Two. It also stayed in range of its immediate Twilight predecessors. In 10 days at North American theaters the series’ penultimate chapter has earned $221.3 million, compared with $230 million for New Moon in 2009 and $227 million for Eclipse, which opened on the Thursday before July 4th last year. BD1 accumulated another $71.5 million abroad this weekend, for a worldwide total so far of $489.3 million. If the Harry Potter rule is applied to Twilight, the concluding installment — Breaking Dawn Part 2, due to open next Nov. 16, will take in 35% more than BD1. The franchise’s distributor, Summit, could be looking at a billion-dollar finale.

(READ: Mary Pols’ takedown of Breaking Dawn 1)

And the $62.3 million five-day debut of The Muppets gives the Henson Company and Disney a revived brand name. On TV, The Muppet Show ran for five years, from 1976 to 1981, and spawned six feature films — The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Muppets from Space (1999) — but the spark had dimmed by the time of creator Jim Henson’s death in 1990. Consigned to online parodies for the past decade, the company called in some unlikely outsiders: Judd Apatow rep player Jason Segel and his Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller to write the script, and James Bobin, co-creator of HBO’s The Fight of the Conchords series, to direct.

(READ: Mary Pols’ love sonnet to The Muppets)

Segel and Amy Adams, the star humans, lured back the middle-agers who’d grown up on the Muppet Show sense of humor; and kids, exposed daily to Muppet antics on Sesame Street, tagged along for the fun. The new audience, 54% of whom were over 25 years of age, gave the movie a sterling A rating on the CinemaScore polling service, and made The Muppets‘ the top soundtrack on iTunes. If the film’s weekend gross fell slightly short of pre-release forecasts, it was still more than swell, considering the modest $45-million budget, and strong enough to send Disney execs singing about synergy. A Muppet movie sequel? A next-generation Muppet TV show? How about the Muppets on Broadway? And all those furry toys in the Disney stores! For folks at the Mouse House, that’s a vision of heaven.

Happy Feet Two, a sequel to the 2006 Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature, maintained its slow, waddling pace: way off the accelerated take for the original. HF2‘s slow opening, coupled with its runaway budget, resulted in the layoff this past week of 600 staffers at the New South Wales base of Dr D Studios, the movie’s animation house.

(READ: Why Happy Feet Two deserved to be a hit)

Yet the penguins still outdistanced their new-arrival rivals. Arthur Christmas is Aardman Studios’ CGI souping up of its handmade stop-motion masterpieces Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The Christmas movie, about the family tensions in three generations of Santa Clauses, tried appealing to the international mass audience with the frantic tempo and broad humor of DreamWorks and Blue Sky cartoons. But to Americans it must still have sounded veddy British, and parents don’t normally to take their kids to foreign films. Those who showed up gave the film a generous A-minus CinemaScore. Arthur took in $17 million over five days in North America — barely more than the same-day total for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas — and has earned another $22.3 million abroad.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Arthur Christmas)

Only Santa knows how Hugo will ever earn a profit. A no-star film (Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz and, in supporting roles, Jude Law and Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo cost about $170 million — perhaps the highest price tag for a live-action kids’ picture that’s not part of a franchise. It’s based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which details the adventures of an orphan boy in a train station and blossoms into a love letter to silent movies. That’s not a prime theme for kids raised on teen wizards and green ogres. So what does Hugo have going for it? 1. a star director, Martin Scorsese, making his first family film; 2. a sumptuous use of 3D (plus extra income from the jacked-up prices); and 3. critical ecstasy. Though playing in only about a third of the theaters housing Arthur Christmas, the movie did nearly as well: $15.4 million in its first five days. Hugo may never break even, but it should give its audiences two hours of rapture.

(READ: Richard Corliss’ own rapturous review of Hugo)

Thanksgiving marks the unofficial start of the Oscar season for art-house hopefuls. Last year at this time, The Weinstein Company launched The King’s Speech on its march to a Best Picture win: the film opened in four theaters and earned a regal $349,791 in three days, for 2010’s highest per-screen average: $87,448. The company’s big Oscar hopeful this year, The Artist, also opened on four screens; and while its $210,414 gross didn’t come close to The King’s Speech take, it’s a great beginning for a French movie in black-and-white with virtually no dialogue. (The topic here, as in Hugo, is silent movies.) Harvey Weinstein, master of Oscar campaigning from The English Patient to Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, knows that virtually everyone who sees the film falls crazy in love with it. If he steers The Artist to a Best Picture win, as some mavens now predict, it will be his most impressive Oscar triumph ever.

(READ: Mary Corliss’ tribute to The Artist)

Weinstein also has hopes for My Week With Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe; that film broke wider and weaker, earning $2.1 million in its first five days on 244 screens. Another celeb-inspired soap opera, but for Mensa members, A Dangerous Method explores the competitive relationship of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to his protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who may have broken professional protocol and had an affair with his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Opening in four theaters, the David Cronenberg drama earned $181,852 over the weekend, $240,944 first five days. Getting that many people off their couches for a session with two dead shrinks: that’s nearly a psychoanalytic breakthrough.

(READ: our reviews of My Week With Marilyn and A Dangerous Method)

In its second week, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, with George Clooney as a Hawaiian husband facing his wife’s imminent death and past infidelity, expanded to 404 theaters and earned a lu-WOW $16,700 per screen for a $7.2 million weekend and $10.7 million in the bank thus far. It should keep building as the awards from critics’ groups warm the film’s reputation like Kauai sunshine.

(READ: The Descendants at the Toronto Film Festival)

Keep in mind that specialty films, like movies aimed at kids, need not grab huge grosses the first weekend. They’re expected to have long legs and a slower payoff. So Arthur Christmas and Hugo could still be attracting customers at year-end holiday time. As for The Artist and The Descendants, they plan to be around at least until Feb. 26 — Oscar night — when no one may be speaking the words “Breaking Dawn.”

Here are the 10 top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo. We list the estimated totals for both the weekend (Friday-Sunday) and the five-day Thanksgiving frame (Wednesday-Sunday).

  1. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, $42 million weekend, $62.3 million five days; $221.3 million, second week
  2. The Muppets, $29.5 million first weekend, $42 million, first five days
  3. Happy Feet Two, $13.4 million weekend, $18.5 million five days; $43.8 million, second week
  4. Arthur Christmas, $12.7 million first weekend, $17 million first five days
  5. Hugo, $11.3 million first weekend, $15.4 million first five days
  6. Jack and Jill, $10.3 million weekend, $14.1 million five days, $57.4 million, third week
  7. Immortals, $8.8 million weekend, $12.5 million five days; $68.7 million, third week
  8. Puss in Boots, $7.45 million weekend, $10.4 million five days; $135.4 million, fifth week
  9. Tower Heist, $7.3 million weekend, $9.6 million five days; $65.4 million, fourth week
  10. The Descendants, $7.2 million weekend, $9.2 million five days; $10.7 million, second week