Despicable Me 2 Makes Minions-Meat of The Lone Ranger

Comedies starring Steve Carell and Kevin Hart bring in the holiday crowds, while Johnny Depp as Tonto is left asking "How?"

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Universal Pictures

Despicable Me 2

In The Lone Ranger, the Masked Man and Tonto must confront two scurvy villains: an outlaw who eats his victims’ hearts and a railroad baron with murder and manifest destiny on his mind. Unfortunately for the movie and its stars, Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, the truly unconquerable supervillain lurked in a multiplex auditorium nearby. Gru, the comical baddie voiced by Steve Carell, and his adorable yellow Minions led Despicable Me 2 (DM2) to a sensational win on the long Independence Day holiday, and a crushing defeat for producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s attempt to launch a big western franchise. Instead of a rousing “Hi-yo, Silver, awaaaay!” the sound this Lone Ranger emitted was closer to “Uh-oh, Silver. Oops.”

DM2, sequel to the 2010 animated caper about a not-so-evil genius saddled with three uppity infants, earned $82.5 million from Friday to Sunday at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates, and $142.1 million in its Wednesday-to-Sunday first five days (which, under Hollywood’s curious bookkeeping system, also includes “preview” screenings on Tuesday evening). The new film reconvened Gru, the kids and the mighty Minions and, for love interest, added the dream rom-com pairing of Carell and Kristen Wiig (who had a different, smaller voice role in Despicable Me). Commercial rapture ensued. The huge audience, which skewed 60% female, 50% under the age of 17 and 55% under 25, awarded the film a giddy A rating in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees.

(MORE: Mary Pols Reviews Despicable Me 2)

[MONDAY UPDATE: In “actual” figures” issued today, Despicable Me 2 exceeded Universal’s rosy estimate by $1 million, finishing at $83.5 million. All other films in the weekend’s top 10 were within $200,000, plus or minus, of their projected grosses.]

Three years ago, Despicable Me opened the weekend after Independence Day to a very cozy $56.4 million, with the boost of $71.2 million from the first international engagements. The new edition trumped those numbers impressively. DM2’s five-day domestic gross is the all-time highest for an animated feature, nosing out Toy Story 3’s $141 million — though the Pixar three-quel opened on a Friday in mid-June, when the fourth and fifth days were school days. Overseas, DM2 grossed $88.8 million in 45 territories, for a foreign total of $151.1 million so far (it opened in some countries on June 20), or more than twice the take of the original picture over the same period in the same markets.

Despicable Me ultimately earned $251.5 million in North America, $291.6 million abroad and $543.1 million in all. The sequel, with a worldwide cume of $293.2 million in five days at home and a couple of weeks abroad, should have no trouble reaching $700 million worldwide. And the best news for its sponsor, Universal: the picture cost only $76 million — relative pennies for an animated feature, let alone a box-office phenomenon.

(MORE: Corliss Reviews the First Despicable Me)

Ah, budgets. Audiences don’t care what a picture cost; they pay the same for a DM2 as for The Lone Ranger, with its hefty price tag somewhere in the $200 millions. They just didn’t buy nearly as many tickets — about a third as many, in humiliating fact. The movie’s $29.4 million first-weekend take was less than the opening frame for much more modest 2013 releases, such as The Purge and Identity Thief; and its five-day gross of $48.9 million couldn’t match the three-day opening of that nonaction film The Great Gatsby. No question that the Depp movie had been plagued with the unhappy publicity of spiraling costs and shooting delays; but those dire portents are not always realized. Brad Pitt’s World War Z suffered the same bad press, yet opened to $66.1 million and has earned $366.2 million worldwide in less than three weeks’ time.

(MORE: Corliss Reviews The Lone Ranger)

Those who went to The Lone Ranger liked it enough (a CinemaScore of B-plus), but the tip-off to its lagging box office was in the demographics: 56% male, fully two-thirds over 25. By Hollywood standard, that means old guys — the same mature audience that attended Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, Will Smith’s After Earth and Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, while other age groups ignored them. Sometimes, as stars get older, their audience does too, and younger fans don’t join their dads. Depp turned 50 last month; and he still looks great, even in Tonto’s Crow war paint. But he may be past his movie-idol prime for the kid contingent. A good test would have been the leading role in Oz the Great and Powerful, which Depp was offered and turned down (as did Robert Downey Jr.). With James Franco as the Wizard, that movie did O.K.: a global gross of nearly $500 million, which The Lone Ranger will be severely challenged to reach.

(MORE: Lily Rothman on Whether The Lone Ranger Is Racist)

Depp, Bruckheimer and Ranger director Gore Verbinski had all worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The pirate-movie genre had been keelhauled decades before, yet the first four Caribbean adventures earned a yo-ho-high $3.7 billion worldwide. So why couldn’t the Pirates team revive the western format? Because the mass of moviegoers doesn’t like it! Westerns get made only because some powerful director, producer or star wants to pay tribute to the sagebrush sagas he loved as a kid. But that demographic is even older than Depp’s. The Lone Ranger’s tributes to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) had the musty smell of the western museum in which the movie’s framing scene take place. And for the film to connect with an audience that recalls the 1933 Lone Ranger radio serial, or the ’50s TV show, it would have to be shown in retirement homes.

(MORE: The Lone Ranger Rides Again, on Radio)

Once Hollywood’s most reliable genre, the western has recently accommodated a few medium-big period films — True Grit ($251 million worldwide), the Depp-Verbinski animated feature Rango ($245.5 million), Cowboys & Aliens ($174.8 million) and, if you count it as a Southern western, Django Unchained ($424 million) — and more than a few flops, including Pitt’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a Pitt-iful $15 million). The only genuine Old West blockbuster of the past quarter-century is Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, which in 1990 earned $424.2 million, or about $800 million today.

(MORE: Review of Dances With Wolves)

To reach even half that figure, The Lone Ranger would have to do spectacular business abroad, where westerns don’t fare so well. (Only Django earned more than half of its worldwide gross from overseas markets.) With just $24.2 million in 24 foreign countries its first weekend, the new movie looks like a worldwide flop. At Disney, its patron studio, executives are advised to trade in their heroes’ masks for paper bags over their heads. Anonymity may be the only option.

(PHOTOS: TIME’s Gallery of Masked Celebrities)

From macro-budget to micro-: Kevin Hart’s comedy concert movie Let Me Explain, which cost maybe $1 million to produce and market, earned $10.1 million over the weekend and $17.5 million since its Wednesday debut. Hart, who turned 33 the day his movie opened, scored $7.7 million for the entire run of his first stand-up doc, the 2011 Laugh at My Pain. The new gig, recorded at Madison Square Garden with minimal fuss — just occasional jet bursts of what he calls “pointless fire,” so the movie would seem less like radio — has more than doubled that total in its first five days. Now maybe Hollywood will get around to giving this ingratiating comic a starring role in a real movie.

(MORE: Joel Stein’s Profile of Kevin Hart)

Starring in one hit this weekend wasn’t enough for Carell. He also headlined the leading indie film The Way, Way Back, a parenting rom-com from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, co-writers of the George Clooney comedy-drama The Descendants. Co-starring Toni Collette as the mother of a 14-year-old boy who resists accepting Carell as his new stepdad, the movie earned $525,000 at 19 theaters — a strong opening to stoke Fox Searchlight’s hopes for a summer indie hit. The Way, Way Back could still be playing in theaters long after The Lone Ranger has ridden into a premature sunset.

(MORE: Mary Pols Reviews The Way, Way Back)

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

1. Despicable Me 2, $82.5 million; $142.1 million, first five days
2. The Lone Ranger, $29.4 million; $48.9 million, first five days
3. The Heat, $25 million; $86.4 million, second week
4. Monsters University, $19.6 million; $216.1 million, third week
5. World War Z, $18.2 million; $158.8 million, third week
6. White House Down, $13.5 million; $50.5 million, second week
7. Man of Steel, $11.4 million; $271.2 million, fourth week
8. Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, $10.1 million; $17.5 million, first five days
9. This Is the End, $5.8 million; $85.6 million, fourth week
10. Now You See Me, $2.8 million; $110.4 million, sixth week