‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Is Rex and ‘Flight’ Has Great Liftoff on a Busy Post-Storm Weekend

In the wake of Sandy, a Disney movie about a video-game lug keeps families happy, while the Denzel Washington drama lures adults

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How did residents of the storm-demolished East Coast lift their post-Sandy spirits? By seeing a movie called Wreck-It Ralph. (The name of the hurricane just before Sandy: Rafael.) Or by taking a turbulent Flight with an inebriated pilot played by Denzel Washington. All over North America, citizens streamed into movie houses as if trying to cure a continent-wide case of cabin fever: business was up 15% from the same weekend last year. And abroad, the sky was the limit. Make that Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond series, which grossed $156 million over the weekend for a celestial $287 million in 10 days. It touches down in the U.S. on Nov. 9.

In a week when the Walt Disney Co. spent $4 billion as a down payment on extending the Star Wars saga (by buying Lucasfilm Ltd.), the Mouse House found a less expensive way of generating revenue. Wreck-It Ralph, which relates the transformation from villain to hero of a huge, bumbling, sweet-hearted clod (John C. Reilly) from an ’80s video game, won the weekend at North American theaters with a smashing $49.1 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. If that number holds when final figures are released Monday, Ralph will have posted the strongest opening for a non-Pixar Disney animated feature, narrowly beating the $48.8 million snagged two Novembers ago by Tangled (which also boasted a Sunday estimate of $49.1 million, before being revised slightly downward).

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Wreck-It Ralph)

[UPDATE: According to final figures released Monday, Wreck-It Ralph posted a $49.04 million weekend gross, close to Disney's Sunday estimate and comfortably above the Tangled total of $48.8 million. Flight's $24.9 million was just $100,000 below Paramount's original number. Of the top-10 titles, only The Man With the Iron Fists was far off the estimated mark: $7.9 million instead of Sunday's $8.2-million forecast.] 

Ralph, with its $165-million budget, cost about $100 million less than Tangled to produce, but that’s still a hefty investment on a project that hardy seemed a sure thing. The movie was directed by Rich Moore, a non-Disney hand who had helmed episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (but who knew Disney-Pixar boss John Lasseter from their student days at CalArts). And unlike the star-encrusted DreamWorks cartoons, it featured a medium-wattage voice cast of R-rated renegades from the stables of Judd Apatow (Reilly) and Jimmy Kimmel (Sarah Silverman, Adam Carolla), along with some prime-time supporting players (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer, Glee‘s Jane Lynch). If Ralph was to wreak any benign havoc, it would have to do so on quality. That it did: critics in the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate awarded the picture an 84% fresh rating, and audiences polled by CinemaScore gave it a gold-star A grade.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Tangled)

In hindsight, Ralph looks like pure marketing savvy: transferring the Toy Story plot to the video-game universe. As the Lasseter blockbusters mixed original figures (Woody and Buzz) with familiar toys (Barbie, Mr. Potato Head), Ralph integrates Ralph and his pals with PacMan — “that cherry-chasing dot-muncher” — and a host of brand®-name oldies. After two tries at Tron (in 1982 and 2010), Disney finally figured out how to get kids inside a video-game movie. Spanning 75 years of animated mayhem, with its nods to Porky in Wackyland and other early, wild Warner Bros. cartoons, Ralph offered touchstones to parents as well as kids; it’s an up-to-date nostalgia trip. Families comprised two-thirds of the Ralph audiences, with 54% of early attendees male — unusually high for a PG-rated animovie. And since school was out of Friday for many kids in the path of Sandy, the picture did big weekday matinee business.

(SEE: Where the Toy Story movies land on the all-TIME Top 25 Animated Features list)

The Flight trajectory was, in its way, even more impressive. Playing in about half as many theaters as Wreck-It Ralph, and costing just $31 million to produce, the R-rated drama opened to $25 million, well above the forecasts of box-office swamis. Like director Robert Zemeckis’s last live-action film, Cast Away, this story about the troubled survivor of a plane crash appealed to adults: a whopping 89% of the weekend audience was over 25. The favorable reviews for Washington and the movie, and the CinemaScore rating of “A,” all but guarantee that this Flight will be airborne into the awards season.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Flight)

Grownups had much to choose from at the multiplex this weekend. Four of the six top-grossing movies — Flight, Argo, The Man With Iron Fists and Cloud Atlas — were rated R, and five were headlined by veteran stars, including Washington, 58, Cloud Atlas‘s Tom Hanks, 56, and Taken 2‘s Liam Neeson, 60. Ben Affleck’s Argo showed stalwart legs, lodging in the top three for a fourth straight week and cementing its chances as an Oscar finalist, while Iron Fists, starring Russell Crowe in the directorial debut of rap icon the RZA, stumbled to a mild $8.2-million opening weekend. Made for $15 million, and godfathered by Quentin Tarantino and cowritten by Eli (Hostel) Roth, this martial-arts mishigas pulled a lame C-plus CinemaScore from its mostly male (64%) viewers.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Argo)

Indie fare languished, both because mainstream films cannibalized the upmarket audiences and because some of the prime art houses are located in lower Manhattan, which was deprived of electricity until Friday evening or Saturday morning. A Late Quartet, the chamber-music drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, earned an OK $76,000 at nine theaters.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of A Late Quartet)

Café de Flore, the acclaimed Canadian weepie that scored last year at the Venice Film Festival, and This Must Be the Place, the Cannes 2011 weirdie directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) and starring Sean Penn and Frances McDormand, lost business due to delayed Manhattan openings. Café de Flore earned $10,000 in one tiny Miami theater; This Must Be the Place took in $7,000 at the NuArt in Los Angeles. True gauges of their box-office potential must await calmer weather and more adventurous audiences.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s Festival reviews of Café de Flore and This Must Be the Place)

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

1. Wreck-It Ralph, $49.1 million, first weekend

2. Flight, $25 million, first weekend

3. Argo, $10.2 million; $75.9 million, fourth week

4. The Man With the Iron Fists, $8.2 million, first weekend

5. Taken 2, $6 million; $125.7 million, fifth week

6. Cloud Atlas, $5.25 million; $18.3 million, second week

7. Hotel Transylvania, $4.5 millionl $137.6 million, sixth week

8. Paranormal Activity 4, $4,3 million; $49.6 million, third week

9. Here Comes the Boom, $3.6 million; $35.6 million, fourth week

10. Silent Hill: Revelation, $3.3 million; $13.9 million, second week