Correction appended Feb. 10, 2014, 12:50pm
The little plastic people in Bricksburg are cheering, and so are the big greedy moguls in Hollywood. The Lego Movie, already acclaimed by critics (95% on Rotten Tomatoes, 82% on Metacritic), broke out like a benign fever across North America, earning a phenomenal $69.1 million, according to preliminary estimates from its ecstatic distributor, Warner Bros.
Also exceeding the expectations of the stats swamis was George Clooney’s true-life World War II heist caper The Monuments Men, with $22.7 million. This was the first weekend in nearly five months to see new movies occupying the top two slots; Insidious 2 and The Family pulled off that perfecta on Sept. 13 to 15.
A PG 3-D stop-motion and CGI cartoon, The Lego Movie is the all-time top February opening after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ ($83.8 million in 2004, which would be $112.7 million today). In real dollars, it’s also behind Hannibal ($58 million in 2001, or $85.5 million today). Consider that Hannibal was the long-awaited sequel to the Oscar-winning blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins reprising his role as the world’s most fastidious cannibal. The Gibson film was a bloody remake of the Greatest Story Ever Told, and the only Hollywood blockbuster that could attribute its success to multiple visits by the evangelical community. For a movie about plastic toys to compete with these two behemoths is nothing short of sensational.
(MORE: Corliss’s Review of The Lego Movie)
The Lego Movie also plants Warner Bros. firmly — and finally! — in the animation game along with Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky (Ice Age) and Universal (Despicable Me). Among all animated features ever released in January through March, the Lego opening trails only two films of plummy pedigree: Universal Pictures’ Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax ($70.2 million in 2012, $73.7 million today) and Fox’s Ice Age: The Meltdown ($68 million in 2006, $86.7 million today). It outgrossed such early-year hits as DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods; Fox’s first Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who! and Robots; and Paramount’s Rango. Any way you count the cash, Lego is a smash.
And its directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, are the new kings of Hollywood. In 2009 they hatched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs ($243 million worldwide), and three years later the live-action comedy update of the 1980s Johnny Depp TV drama 21 Jump Street ($201 million worldwide). Both films generated sequels, and Warner Bros. is already at work on a Lego follow-up. The new movie earned a rapturous A CinemaScore rating from an audience whose demographics were surprising for an animated feature: 55% male and 59% over 18. And since the picture’s production cost was only about $60 million — less than any of its first-quarter cartoon competitors — it will be in the black by next weekend.
We’ll bet Clooney was happy to come in second with The Monuments Men; its $22.7 million take would have made it No. 1 either of the past two weekends. The PG-13-rated World War II adventure — in which Clooney leads a platoon of art-history specialists (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, etc.) on a mission to save Nazi-held treasures — got slammed by most critics and looked a poor bet to break even on its $70 million budget. But its generous B-plus from CinemaScore suggested the movie connected with audiences in search of a retro thriller for grownups. The opening attraction at the Berlin Film Festival, with Clooney and the gang on hand, The Monuments Men could do more robust business abroad than at home.
(MORE: Corliss’s Review of The Monuments Men)
In holdover news, Ride Along exceeded the $100 million mark in its fourth week; and Frozen, in its 12th, inched past Despicable Me 2 ($368.7 million to $368.1 million) to become North America’s top-grossing animated feature released in 2013. The weekend’s one other new wide debut film, Vampire Academy, stumbled to a $4.1 million opening. High school and vampires might have seemed a socko tandem, but audiences didn’t bite.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as compiled from various sources:
1. The Lego Movie, $69.1 million, first weekend
2. The Monuments Men, $22.7 million, first weekend
3. Ride Along, $9.4 million; $105.2 million, fourth week
4. Frozen, $6.9 million; $368.7 million, twelfth week
5. That Awkward Moment, $5.3 million; $16.8 million, second week
6. Lone Survivor, $5.3 million; $112.6 million, seventh week
7. Vampire Academy, $4.1 million, first week
8. The Nut Job, $3.8 million; $55.1 million, fourth week
9. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, $3.6 million; $44.5 million, fourth week
10. Labor Day, $3.2 million; $10.2 million, second week
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the studio behind Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. It is Universal Pictures.