The Lorax Aborts John Carter‘s Mission to Mars

Seuss slams Disney, as the $250 million space epic limps into second place

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Universal Pictures

Hollywood, we have a problem. Disney launched its quarter-billion-dollar Martian drama, John Carter, and saw it fizzle at the North American box office. Earning $30.6 million, this fable of a Civil War veteran (Taylor Kitsch) transported into the middle of a war on the Red Planet landed a distant second to a holdover cartoon. Universal’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax took in $39.1 million to win the weekend, according to preliminary studio estimates. Though Carter conquered the foreign markets, amassing a worldwide $101.2 million, mission control over at Disney has to consider this a misfire.

If a $30 million debut is deemed a flop, you know it’s a good year for the movie industry. Last year at this time, only two movies (Rango and Battle Los Angeles) had enjoyed heftier openings than Carter’s announced total. But business was in a slump then; now it’s booming, with each weekend, including this one, improving on the same frame from 2011. The new year exploded with The Devil Inside, a horror film that was made for $1 million — that’s 1/250th of Carter’s budget, for you math majors — and grossed $33.7 million its first three days. Since then, The Vow, Safe House and the Seussensational Lorax have all started at $40 million-plus and kept on chugging past $100 million domestic.

(READ: Corliss’s Tribute to The Lorax’s Dr. Seuss)

Granted, none of those three hits has come close to matching the $70.6 million overseas take that the Martian chronicle stockpiled in just its first three days. Carter may turn out to be one of those movies that is middling at home and boffo abroad, like Brad Pitt’s 2004 Homeric epic, Troy, which earned nearly a half-billion dollars worldwide, and nearly 75% of that in foreign markets. But Carter, the first live-action adventure directed by Pixar master Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL·E), never found its footing with American audiences.

Promoted in trailers attached to last summer’s Harry Potter smash and in long commercials on the Super Bowl, Carter was made to seem like a fusion of Star Wars and Avatar. Actually, that was fair, because the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which the movie is based had previously inspired bits of the George Lucas franchise and was a direct source for James Cameron’s all-time top worldwide hit. Yet, in its first major screen version, the Carter saga played to today’s audiences like a pale imitation of the movies that had imitated it.

Other augurs were unpromising. The film mixes space drama with an old-fashioned western plot, and the last movie that tried that, Cowboys & Aliens, was an expensive failure (though its opening weekend still outgrossed Carter’s). The Disney folks were also courting catastrophic early-March karma: this same weekend last year, they opened another $250 million Martian caper, Mars Needs Moms, which became the biggest money loser of 2011, earning just $21.4 million in North America and less than $40 million worldwide. Carter’s early audience, which skewed male (64%) and older (59% over 25), did give the movie a solid B+ CinemaScore rating; and the Saturday business was up an encouraging 25% from Friday’s, including midnight shows. So there’s hope for this space traveler — if not here, then on distant shores.

(READ: Corliss’s Review of John Carter)

The two other “new” films in wide release finished well out of the money. Silent House, a low-budget psychological thriller that stars Olsen nontwin Elizabeth (Martha Marcy May Marlene) — and, in a cute gimmick, purports to have been shot in one continuous 80-minute take — premiered at Sundance in early 2011. Its $7 million weekend gross isn’t bad, but the movie should suffer from libelous word of mouth, seeing as its CinemaScore was a rock-bottom F.

The weekend’s other big premiere, the Eddie Murphy comedy A Thousand Words, was filmed fully four years ago and shelved until now. In old showbiz parlance, the movie wasn’t released; it escaped. The Shrek franchise aside, Murphy hasn’t starred in a live-action blockbuster in more than a decade. The meager $6.35 million opening for his latest farce won’t help the 50-year-old funny man’s career arc.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final results issued today, almost all of the movies failed to meet their Sunday estimates. The Lorax finished at $38.8 million ($300,000 short of its preliminary figure) and John Carter at $30.2 million ($400,000 below). Silent House‘s final total of $6.7 million dropped it into fifth place behind Act of Valor, which met its $7-million forecast. Even the skimpy gross for A Thousand Words was overreported: it actually took in $6.2 million.]

In specialty openings, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, featuring indie faves Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas, corralled $240,000 in 18 theaters, and the Oscar-nominated Israeli comedy-drama Footnote opened smartly with $48,000 on just two screens. In a wider release at 374 venues, the romantic comedy Friends with Kids — which stars writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt, her real-life beau Jon Hamm and his Bridesmaids cohorts Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph — pulled a promising $2.2 million.

(MORE: Mary Pols’ Reviews of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Friends with Kids)

That’s the difference between Indieland and Hollywood: $2 million brings joy to the Westfeldt clan, whereas $30 million for John Carter gives its sponsors the feeling they’re stranded up a Martian canal without a paddle.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, $39.1 million; $121.95 million, second week

2. John Carter, $30.6 million, first weekend

3. Project X, $11.55 million; $40.1 million, second week

4. Silent House, $7.01 million, first weekend

5. Act of Valor, $7 million; $56.1 million, third week

6. A Thousand Words, $6.35 million, first weekend

7. Safe House, $5 million; $115.8 million, fifth week

8. The Vow, $4 million; $117.6 million, fifth week

9. This Means War, $3.75 million; $46.9 million, fourth week

10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $3.7 million; $90.7 million, fifth week