It’s Seusstastic! How The Lorax Saved Hollywood

The tree-hugging children's movie blossomed riotously, registering one of the highest-ever opening grosses for an original animated feature.

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Universal Pictures

Look who cut down the competition, like the Once-ler with his axe in the forest. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax demolished box-office records this weekend, earning a Seusstastic $70.7 million at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates. Based on Ted Geisel’s 1971 parable of our natural environment ravaged by industrial greed — but with the addition of cute kids, simple songs and a feel-good ending — the film exceeded the predictions of its sponsors at Universal by about 50% to register the splashiest, smashiest, super-Seuss-cashiest debut of 2012.

So spectacular was The Lorax‘s triumph that it stifled word of the very solid earnings for the weekend’s other debut film, Project X, which transported the faux-found-footage format to the raunch-comedy genre. Full of purloined gnomes and a car-wrecking dwarf, Project X amassed $20.8 million, which probably exceeded its thrifty budget. But then, good news is rampant in the booming box office of 2012, when every weekend has topped the box-office gross of the same period last year. Even so, this frame was special: no movie since The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 last November has thundered like The Lorax.

(READ: Seussapalooza: The Man Behind The Lorax)

And that’s not all. In a business dominated by sequels and animated features, The Lorax scored:

  • the biggest opening for a nonsequel since the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland ($116.1 million), exactly two years ago;
  • the biggest opening for an animated feature since Toy Story 3 ($110.3 million) in June 2010;
  • the biggest opening for a movie based on a Seuss book, beating Jim Carrey’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas ($55.1 million in 2000), Mike Myers’ live-action The Cat in the Hat ($38.3 million in 2003) and the animated Horton Hears a Who!, also voiced by Carrey ($45 million in 2008) — though, factoring for inflation, The Grinch would top The Lorax in real dollars; and
  • the biggest opening for a nonsequel animated feature since The Simpsons Movie ($74 million) in July 2007. If you disqualify that transfer of a behemoth TV franchise as an “original,” then The Lorax‘s loot could top the first-weekend grosses of the Pixar CGI movies The Incredibles ($70.1 million), Finding Nemo ($70.3 million) and Up ($68.1 million) — though, again, not in real dollars. We’ll have a clearer view of The Lorax‘s weekend accomplishments when final figures are issued Monday afternoon.

[MONDAY UPDATE: The Lorax‘s “actual” weekend number was $70.2 million — the biggest opening gross (in inflationary dollars) for any nonsequel animated feature excepting The Simpsons Movie, which, as we noted above, is its own special case. The official figure for Project X was $21.1 million, a smidge higher than yesterday’s $20.8-million estimate. And, as hinted at the end of this report, The Artist finished in 11th place, about $200,000 below the 10th-ranked Wanderlust; so the Oscar’s Best Picture winner has yet to land among the top 10 money earners in any of its 15 weeks of release.]

Employing the voices of familiar TV faces Danny DeVito as the forest-loving Lorax and Ed Helms as the forest-chopping Once-ler, the movie took in more money this weekend than all six of DeVito’s most recent films (The OH in Ohio, Deck the Halls, Even Money, The Good Night, Noble Son and Solitary Man, if you’re playing at home) earned in their entire theatrical runs, and more than twice the total gross of Helms’ starring roles in pictures not called The Hangover (Meet Dave, The Goods and Cedar Rapids). Pick almost any category, and The Lorax broke the record.

(SEE: The Wacky World of Dr. Seuss in Movies and TV)

The secrets: savvy marketing and kid power. Universal arranged more than 70 promotional tie-ins, not just with the usual fast-food chains (IHOP) and car manufacturers (Mazda) but also with companies thought of as “green” (The Nature Conservancy, Pottery Barn, Whole Foods). The film’s eco-friendly politics might have been a burr under the butts of right-wing commentators like Lou Dobbs and Matt Patrick, but their fulminations were just so much free publicity, alerting the dads watching the Fox Business Network that their children had a movie to see this weekend. What was Rick Santorum going to tell his seven kids — “You can’t see a movie that makes me want to throw up”?

Maybe the Santori didn’t go to The Lorax, but millions of the very young did: 68% of the audience comprised children under 12 and their parents. Girl power amplified kid power: 63% of those 13 and older were female. In a way this was a niche audience, since 74% of those over 25 were escorting children; but that simply proves that in today’s market the very young, not their teen and 20-something siblings, have become Hollywood’s most reliable demographic. This mammoth crowd rewarded The Lorax with a solid “A” rating from the CinemaScore pollsters of early moviegoers — suggesting, despite the so-so reviews from critics (a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) that word-of-mouth will attract new and return customers. As any parent can tell you, kids love to hear, or see, a favorite story over and over.

Among the holdover films, the Navy SEALs action picture Act of Valor commandeered third place with a burly $13.7 million; and three hits in the fourth week of release continued their impressive runs. The weepie The Vow ($111.7 million) and the spy-chase drama Safe House ($108.2 million) boasted numbers more frequently seen in the peak months of summer, while Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ($85.6 million) showed remarkable staying power. Having replaced Brendan Fraser as the star of the Journey series, and having playing opposite him in The Mummy Returns, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson should consider appearing in sequels to other Fraser franchises. The Iceman Cometh Again? George Back in the Jungle? Furrier Vengeance?

The past week also underlined the chasm between what Hollywood does best 52 weeks a year — making crowd-pleasing films like these — and what it honors on Oscar night. The Artist, the silent comedy that swept Best Picture, Actor and Director last Sunday night, has yet to click with mass audiences. On this, its 15th weekend in theaters, the Academy winner may have finally entered the box-office weekend’s top 10: in the preliminary tally it is just $100,000 ahead of the Jennifer Aniston comedy Wanderlust, so we won’t know for sure until Monday whether it finished 10th or 11th. But its $37.1 million total domestic gross is just a tad higher than the $31.1 million The Lorax earned in one day (Saturday).

If the geriatric members of the Motion Picture Academy want a viewing audience younger than they are for next year’s Oscar show, they ought to think about nominating some popular movies for Best Picture instead of making their ceremony a fund-raiser for worthy films few people will pay to see. A big Oscar may never go to the likes of The Lorax, but for now the folks at Universal will take the money and grin.

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

  1. The Lorax, $70.7 million, first weekend
  2. Project X, $20.8 million, first weekend
  3. Act of Valor, $13.7 million; $45.2 million, second week
  4. Safe House, $7.2 million; $108.2 million, fourth week
  5. Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, $7 million; $25.7 million, second week
  6. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $6.9 million; $85.6 million, fourth week
  7. The Vow, $6.1 million; $111.7 million, fourth week
  8. This Means War, $5.6 million; $41.5 million, third week
  9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, $4.7 million; $44.9 million, third week
  10. The Artist, $3.9 million; $37.1 million, 15th week