$50 million worth of moviegoers can’t be wrong. The critics gave Taken 2 a ferocious pummeling — a 20% score on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate-review site, meaning that four-fifths of them dumped on the film — but Liam Neeson rose from the beating to kick beaucoup d’ass where it counts at the box office. The PG-13-rated action film earned a slam-bang $50 million, according to early studio projections, to win the weekend at North American theaters. If that conveniently round number holds, Taken 2 will be the first movie to hit the $50-million weekend mark since The Dark Knight Rises opened in July.
[MONDAY UPDATE: “Actual” figures released today gave the weekend tally for Taken 2 as $49.5 million, which is still a lot of cash, though not as much as the burly $67 million the movie earned abroad. The final number for Hotel Transylvania was $27.1 million, well above the $26.3 Sunday estimate. The “actuals” for the other top-10 finishers were close to their Sunday predictions.]
And what was the first $40-million opener since the Batman caper-capper? That came last week, with Hotel Transylvania. Hollywood has shaken the late-summer blahs and lured audiences back to theaters by offering, what else?, what has worked before: an animated comedy voiced by brand-name actors (Adam Sandler, Kevin James) and a revenge drama with a 60-year-old Irishman who, for now, is the movies’ top action star. This sequel to Neeson’s 2009 hit, which earned $145 million at the domestic box office and another $82 million abroad, succeeded by attracting a broad swath of moviegoers — 52% male, 65% over the age of 25 — who gave the film an OK B-plus rating as polled by the CinemaScore survey firm.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Taken 2)
In the first installment, an ex-CIA operative (Neeson) came to Paris to track down the white slavers who had kidnapped his daughter (Maggie Grace). The new chapter moves the location to Turkey and makes the spy and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) the captives, while the daughter tosses grenades on Istanbul rooftops and drives madly through the streets. It’s not much of a SPOILER ALERT to mention that Grace has a boyfriend to whom Neeson eventually warms up — virtually guaranteeing a Taken 3 with the kidnapping of the daughter and her beau. Maybe they’ll have a baby by then, which could make Taken the Fockers of action-movie franchises.
As hostile as most reviews for Taken 2 were, that’s how supportive the critical response (85% favorable) was for Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s stop-motion expansion of a 29-min. live-action film he made in 1984, when he was a young animator at Disney. The brass shelved the movie — about a boy who brings his dead pit bull terrier back to life, Frankenstein-style — and fired Burton, who did plenty well on his own. The director returned to the studio a quarter-century later to make Alice in Wonderland and earn Disney a billion dollars at the worldwide box office.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Alice in Wonderland)
Frankenweenie might not rack up a twentieth of that bonanza. The black-and-white 3-D feature — Burton’s third stop-motion movie, after The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, and the third set in a cemetery — opened to a moribund $11.5 million. That’s less than half of what Hotel Transylvania, another animated comedy about the undead, grossed in its second weekend. Parents and kids chose bright colors and broad humor over artful atmospherics and subtler wit.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Frankenweenie)
The Frankenweenie opening was weak even for a stop-motion movie — well below the $19.3 million for Burton’s Corpse Bride in 2005 and the $14.1 million for the recent ParaNorman, and just about even with the $11.1 million cadged this April by Aardman Studio’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The CinemaScore rating for Burton’s movie was B-plus — suitable for an action film like Taken 2 but abysmal for an animated feature, which is usually awarded a more generous A-minus (Transylvania, Ice Age 4, Puss in Boots), a full “A” (Brave, The Lorax, Madagascar 3) or even an A-plus (Tangled). Disney is unlikely to fire Burton again, but they may discourage him from making stop-motion cartoons set in graveyards.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Hotel Transylvania)
Elsewhere, the college musical Pitch Perfect — one of this week’s rare top-10 movies in which no human or pet dies or is already dead — earned a harmonious $14.7 million in its first weekend of wide release. In Indieland, The Paperboy, a lubricious heap o’ Southern grits starring Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman, snatched a hot $110,000 on 11 screens. The Oranges, in which Leighton Meester cuddles up with a man Hugh Laurie) old enough to be her best friend’s father — in fact, he is — opened in 10 times as many theaters as The Paperboy but took in just $180,000, for a pathetic $1,636 per-screen average. Andrea Arnold’s rough-hewn version of Wuthering Heights (her Heathcliff is black) found a chilly reception: $8,800 on a single Manhattan screen.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Taken 2, $50 million, first weekend
2. Hotel Transylvania, $26.3 million; $76 million, second week
3. Pitch Perfect, $14.7 million; $21.6 million, second week
4. Looper, $12.2 million; $40.3 million, second week
5. Frankenweenie, $11.5 million, first weekend
6. End of Watch, $4 million; $32.9 million, third week
7. Trouble With the Curve, $3.9 million; $29.7 million, third week
8. House at the End of the Street, $3.7 million; $27.5 million, third week
9. The Master, $1.8 million; $12.3 million, fourth week
10. Finding Nemo, $1.6 million; $39 million, fourth week of rerelease