Creature Features: Madagascar 3 Scares Off Prometheus

The giddily animated DreamWorks sequel beats the avidly awaited Alien prequel.

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Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks

The folks at Fox should be pleased with the numbers for the opening weekend of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise that he launched 33 years ago. According to preliminary estimates, the movie earned $50 million in its first three days at North American theaters — more than the cumulative $49.5 million amassed by the original movie and its three sequels (the 1986 Aliens, the 1992 Alien³ and the 1997 Alien Resurrection) in their first weekends. Starting its domestic run, Prometheus notched the seventh strongest debut of 2012, behind The Avengers, The Hunger Games, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Snow White and the Huntsman, Men in Black 3

(READ: Corliss’s review of Prometheus)

…and this weekend’s other big new feature, Madagascar 3: Europe‘s Most Wanted. Fanboys and their parents, eagerly awaiting Scott’s artful variations on the horrors of face-hugging and gut-busting, couldn’t outnumber the family audiences ready for another installment of the DreamWorks animated comedy about a bunch of domesticated zoo animals on far-flung adventures. In the battle of four-syllable movie titles, Mad 3 won this busy weekend — the first in five weeks to top the total revenue of the same frame a year ago — with about $60.3 million. That figure is well above the $47.2 million opening gross for the first Madagascar episode in 2005, though a smidge below the $63.1 million earned by Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa in 2008. (This same weekend five years ago, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda opened to $60.2 million.)

[MONDAY UPDATE: In the weekend’s “actual” grosses, released today, Madagascar 3 held onto its $60.3 million total, while Prometheus finished $1 million above its preliminary $50-million figure. Men in Black 3 and The Avengers tallied numbers about $400,000 higher than originally reported. All other films in the top 10 were within $100,000 of their Sunday estimates.]   

(READ: Corliss’s review of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

This madly paced comedy, directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, reunited the quartet of stars who lent their vocal talents to the first two films (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer), corralled Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer from Mad 2 and imported new voices Frances McDormand, Martin Short, Jessica Chastain and, as a ferocious Siberian tiger, Bryan Cranston. The continental setting may have stoked business overseas: $75.5 million in 28 foreign territories, including a roaring $16.5 million in Russia — and neighboring Siberia.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa)

At home, Mad 3 attracted a young audience (54% under the age of 25) that skewed female (56%), and pulled a sterling “A” rating from the CinemaScore survey of early attendees. It also marked a box-office milestone for its screenwriter, Noah Baumbach, known till now as a writer-director of prickly indie comedies. In three days, Mad 3 took in more money than the $59.7 million earned in their entire theatrical runs by Baumbach’s previous seven movies: the five he made on his own (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg) plus the two he cowrote with director Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox). Such is the chasm between indie films and the mainstream.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg

On its first day in North America, Mad 3 fell behind Prometheus, $20.45 million to $21.4 million, but earned $22.1 million Saturday as Prometheus dropped 25% to $16.1 million. That’s a typical descent for a horror film. What’s not typical is the movie’s demographic: nearly two-thirds of the first-weekend audience was 25 or older, indicating that the picture appealed mainly to those who fondly remembered Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel, and less to the kids who usually flock to scare shows. Even this core audience was not awe-struck: the film pulled a mediocre B mark on CinemaScore. Still, with a $91.5 million gross from its first 12 days in foreign territories, Prometheus should reach its intended goal: making enough money for Fox to greenlight a sequel to the prequel.

(READ: Lev Grossman’s essay on Prometheus and the “space opera” genre

In the cozy box-office suburb called Indieville, two specialty films made the top 10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the elderly-Brits-in-India mellow-drama that has expanded to about 1,300 screens, took in $3.2 million for a six-week total of $31 million; and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom crept into the tenth spot, though it played on only 96 screens. With stars Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and McDormand in support of two runaway pre-teens in love, the quirky comedy should easily match the $20-million-plus domestic grosses of the two films Anderson wrote with Baumbach, if not the $52.4 million amassed by the director’s one semi-hit, The Royal Tenenbaums.

(READ: Lily Rothman on the mysterious end credits of Prometheus)

Among the indie premieres, Safety Not Guaranteed did best: an estimated $100,000 in nine theaters. The warm critical reception indicates a positive run for this wary comedy, starring TV faves Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Jake M. Johnson (New Girl) as young journalists tracking down a guy who wants to time-travel, played by the suddenly-everywhere mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass. Another indie icon, Greta Gerwig, who starred in Duplass’s Baghead, graces Lola Versus, a rom-com that the critical consensus said was no Girls; viewers took the hint and — except for those who bought $34,000 worth of tickets this weekend at four theaters — stayed home.

(READ: Screenwriter Damon Lindelof on the secrets of Prometheus)

The presence of Robert Pattinson, as a rakehell Romeo toying with the affections of prime femmes Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci and Natalia Tena, lured few of the Twilight vampire’s fans to Bel Ami: $48,000 in 15 theaters, for a toothless $3,200 per screen. The Guy de Maupassant story has inspired more than a half-dozen previous movies and TV films. For a treat, skip the new version and rent Albert Lewin’s sumptuously odd 1947 adaptation, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, starring George Sanders as the man on the make and Angela Lansbury and Ann Dvorak as two of his victims.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Bel Ami)

Todd Solondz — the filmmaker whose depressive-delightful kinda-comedies Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Life During Wartime mine terrain similar to Baumbach’s — did without a star for Dark Horse, his story of a sad schlub (Jordan Gelber) and the women (Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy) whose love or pity he somehow evokes. Released by a startup distributor, and playing only at the Angelika Theatre in lower Manhattan, Dark Horse nonetheless earned an optimistic $15,000.

(READ: Corliss’s paean to Dark Horse)

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

1. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $60.35 million, first weekend

2. Prometheus, $50 million, first weekend

3. Snow White and the Huntsman, $23 million; $98.5 million, second week

4. Men in Black 3, $13.5 million; $135.5 million, third week

5. The Avengers, $10.8 million; $571.9 million, sixth week

6. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, $3.2 million; $31 million, sixth week

7. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, $2.7 million; $35.7 million, fourth week

8. Battleship, $2.3 million; $59.8 million, fourth week

9. The Dictator, $2.15 million; $55.2 million, fourth week

10. Moonrise Kingdom, $1.6 million; $3.75 million, third week