Box Office: The Lion King Roars, Drive Purrs, Straw Dogs Whimpers

Disney's 3-D reissue of its 1994 megahit The Lion King dominated multiplexes this weekend, with an estimated opening weekend haul of nearly $30 million

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Long live the King! Disney’s animated feature The Lion King, the top-grossing movie of 1994, roared back into theaters 17 years later, in a 3-D version, to become the mane event at the North American box office, according to early studio estimates. The $29.3 million weekend take, nearly twice the predicted $15 million, also was more than double the $14.5 million earned by the runner-up (and last week’s winner), the plague procedural Contagion. The weekend’s three big newcomers — Drive, Straw Dogs and I Don’t Know How She Does It — opened to figures ranging from so-so to so-what? None could wriggle from beneath the predatory paw of Simba, the dominant feline.

[MONDAY UPDATE: Final numbers, released this afternoon, reveal that The Lion King did even better than announced yesterday: a regal $30.15 million for the weekend. All other grosses for the weekend’s top 10 films were within $300,000 of the Sunday estimates.]

The Lion King‘s numinous numbers — which registered the best weekend haul since Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened six weeks ago — underline the enormous, enduring power of the Disney brand’s top-of-the-line items. Five of Box Office Mojo’s 25 all-time top moneymakers, in real dollars, are Mouse House movies: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at No. 10; 101 Dalmatians at No. 11; Fantasia at No. 21; The Lion King at No. 22; and the live-action-plus-animation Mary Poppins at No. 25. Since The Lion King was released, only three films (Titanic, Avatar and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) have earned more at the domestic box office, again in real dollars. And that’s not counting the quillions The Lion King picked up in home-video sales, in which the real money is. Throw in the revenue from all the Simba merchandise and the CD (which sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone), and by 1997 the movie had generated a billion dollars in profits for the company.

Studios have rereleased beloved films before, but rarely with this success. Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid resurfaced in 1997, finishing third with $9.8 million. In 2002, the 20th anniversary edition of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also a show horse, earning $14.2 million. And in 2009 Disney/Pixar tried a double bill of the first two Toy Story installments, again in third place with $12.5 million. All these rereleases were essentially promos for forthcoming DVD packages, as is this multiplex visit of The Lion King, whose “Two-Disc Diamond Edition Blue-ray/DVD Combo in Blu-ray Packaging” hits stores Oct. 4. But this was the movie that had enthralled young parents when they were kids, and a theatrical experience they wanted their own children to share. They did, in droves, making The Lion King the first rerelease to win the weekend box office since early 1997, when tarted-up versions of the original Star Wars and its two sequels took the top spots six times: A New Hope for three weekends, The Empire Strikes Back for two and Return of the Jedi for one.

Drive, which must be about the sixth time critics have predicted that Ryan Gosling was about to become a star, didn’t turn the trick, at least in its first weekend. Nicolas Winding Refn’s pensive action film, with the actor as a nameless wheel man caught between rival gangs, opened at $11 million, on the low end of predictions; instead of mimicking The Fast and the Furious, this one was more like the slow and the spurious. (Want to see a good movie on the same subject? Check out Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978, with stolid Ryan O’Neal as the man in the Merc.) Fans of Gosling — whose only mainstream hit, The Notebook, came out seven years ago — get another chance to announce his breakthrough in three weeks, when he plays the lead in George Clooney’s political drama The Ides of March.

Straw Dogs, a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 40-year-old domestic splatter pic, cast James Marsden in the Dustin Hoffman role of a mousy husband and Kate Bosworth as the sex bomb originally detonated by Susan George. It pulled in just $5 million, to finish behind The Help in its sixth week and ahead of I Don’t Know How She Does It, a workplace-homeplace comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker. The film’s paltry $4.5 million indicates that Parker, if she wants movie-career insurance, had better keep playing Carrie Bradshaw-Preston until her Sex and the City character hits a Club Med retirement home. For now, at least, this longtime lion queen has lost her pride.

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

1. The Lion King, $29.3 million, first weekend of rerelease; $387.2 million, 27th week (including 26 weeks in 1994-95)

2. Contagion, $14.5 million; $44.2 million, second week

3. Drive, $11 million, first weekend

4. The Help, $6.4 million; $147.3 million, sixth week

5. Straw Dogs, $5 million, first weekend

6. I Don’t Know How She Does It, $4.5 million, first weekend

7. The Debt, $2.9 million; $26.5 million, third week

8. Warrior, $2.8 million; $9.9 million, second week

9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, $2.6 million; $171.6 million, seventh week

10. Columbiana, $2.3 million; $33.3 million, fourth week