I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
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Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
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Hollywood got through the first weekend of the new year in slightly better shape than studio insiders expected.
It took just $11.5 million to put Columbia's "Stuart Little" in first place, making it the weekend's only Top Five film to crack double digits. Lackluster tracking scores last week had suggested that the new year might kick off with none of the Top Five films doing better than single-digit grosses.
Columbia's PG-rated family comedy held on to the top spot in its fourth week, still laughing with an estimated $11.5 million (-28%) at 2,979 theaters (+79 theaters, $3,806 per theater). Its total is approximately $95.6 million. Directed by Rob Minkoff, "Stuart Little" stars Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie and Jonathan Lipnicki.
"It'll hit $100 million either Friday or Saturday of next week," Sony Pictures Releasing President Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "With the holiday week, we won't do far from this figure for the four days. And there are no other kids' pictures coming in until Feb. 11 (Buena Vista/Disney's animated "The Tigger Movie").
"The hard part is getting them (family films) going. Once a picture like this starts rolling, it adds up pretty quick if everything goes well. We're thrilled. We're thinking (it will get to about) $130 million, at this point in time, somewhere in that range."
"Stuart Little" stands to turn into a franchise for Sony. "I know they're working hard at 'Stuart Little II.' And I think that's effort well spent," Blake said.
Paramount's R-rated drama "The Talented Mr. Ripley" moved up one notch to No. 2 in its third week of release with a respectable estimated $9.8 million (-21%) at 2,316 theaters (+7 theaters, $4,231 per theater). (Earlier estimates last week placed it at No. 5, then No. 2 and finally at No. 3.) Its total is approximately $54.6 million. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), it stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett.
"Ripley" appears to be a prime candidate for Oscar nominations, having received five Golden Globe nominations -- best picture/drama, best actor/drama (Damon), best supporting actor ( Law), best director (Minghella) and best score (Gabriel Yared).
"I think this one really depends on the (Oscar) nominations," Paramount Distribution President Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "I've got it at $80-90 million. But if we get (Oscar nominations for) Best Picture, Director and, maybe, one of the actors and, of course, if we win something, it could get to $100 million (or more).
"With a picture like this, it can be very helpful."
Asked who the audience for "Ripley" is, Lewellen replied, "It's older females, primarily, but obviously they bring the men with them. It's more female than male.
"But it's playing pretty well across the board."
Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment's R-rated prison death row drama "The Green Mile" was a close third in its fifth week, up one notch with an estimated $9.7 million (-17%) at 2,678 theaters (-197 theaters; $3,622 per theater). Its total is approximately $91.3 million.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption", it stars Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan. Where will "Mile" get to in domestic theaters? "Probably $130 million," Warner Bros. Distribution President Dan Fellman said Sunday morning.
Warner Bros.' R-rated drama "Any Given Sunday" rose one peg to fourth place in its third week with an estimated $9.02 million (-23%) at 2,505 theaters (theater count unchanged, $3,599 per theater). Its total is approximately $59.5 million. Directed by Oliver Stone, it stars Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz.
Where is "Sunday" heading in domestic theaters?
"It just is going to depend on the next few weeks -- somewhere between $80-100 million," Warners' Fellman said.
Rounding out the Top Five was DreamWorks' PG-rated sci-fi fantasy comedy "Galaxy Quest," up one peg in its third week with a surprisingly strong estimated $8.3 million (-14%) at 2,450 theaters (+8 theaters; $3,388 per theater). Its total is approximately $38.8 million, heading for $60 million to $70 million in domestic theaters. Directed by Dean Parisot, it stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman.
Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar's animated blockbuster "Toy Story 2" finished sixth in its eighth week with a still jolly estimated $7.5 million (-39%) at 2,752 theaters (-350 theatres, $2,733 per theater). Its total is approximately $220.1 million, heading for a domestic theatrical total of $260 million to $270 million. Directed by John Lasseter, it features the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, Wayne Knight, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Harris and R. Lee Ermey.
"It is now the second-highest-grossing animated film in our history (after 'The Lion King')," Buena Vista Distribution President Chuck Viane said Sunday morning. "And it's the third-highest-grossing picture we ever released -- behind 'Lion King' and 'Sixth Sense.'"
Looking ahead, Viane said, "Based on this, we'll probably be at $228-$230 million by the time we come out of the Martin Luther King weekend. And then it'll just go and go until it's over."
New Line's R-rated drama "Magnolia" went wide in its fourth week, placing seventh with a promising estimated $6.57 million at 1,034 theaters (+1,025 theatres, $6,359 per theater). Its total is approximately $7.5 million.
"Magnolia's" per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, its ensemble cast is headed by Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Jason Robards and Julianne Moore.
"Magnolia" received two Golden Globe nominations, including best supporting actor (Cruise) and original song ("Save Me," music and lyrics by Aimee Mann).
"We're happy," New Line Executive Vice President, Distribution, David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "Some people are going to have us (estimated) lower. The difference is the last three weeks -- our second Sunday was bigger than the Saturday that weekend, and the Sunday the first weekend was 90% of the Saturday, and the Sunday the third weekend was over 90% of the Saturday.
"So everybody's figuring us at like sixtysome percent. Sunday should be almost what Saturday is (for this film)."
Like other three-hour films, "Magnolia" tends to do well on Sundays because people have the time available that day to see something that long.
"You have to make a commitment to see a three-hour movie," Tuckerman said.
Who is the audience for "Magnolia"?
"I sat last night and watched it in Santa Monica," Tuckerman said. "You're basically getting the mid-20s and above. Both (males and females). We didn't do exit polls the first three weeks because we figured we got (Anderson's) fans. We're doing them tonight, so we'll be smarter (Monday)."
Asked if people like the film, Tuckerman said, "They come out stunned. Half of them love it, and half of them hate it. And then they talk about it the next day. The ones that hated it talk about it -- and you can tell they've changed (their opinion)."
Will New Line go wider with the film?
"I think we're going to wait to see what next weekend brings," he said. "I have to tell you, every market that this picture opened in, there's huge pockets of strength. The 'white bread' towns didn't work as well. But within those markets (there is strength). Seattle didn't look good, then one of the best runs in the country came out of Seattle. It's really strange. In Canada, they love it."
Buena Vista/Touchstone's "Bicentennial Man" was eighth in its fourth week with a quiet estimated $5.2 million (-37%) at 2,612 theaters (-155 theate s, $1,992 per theater). Its total is approximately $47.1 million. Directed by Chris Columbus, it stars Robin Williams.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's R-rated youth-appeal comedy "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" was ninth in its fifth week with a less funny estimated $5 million (-13%) at 2,066 theaters (-96 theaters, $2,403 per theater). Its total is approximately $54 million. Directed by Mike Mitchell, it stars Rob Schneider.
"I have hesitated to say this, but I think now it's probably a $70 million picture," BV's Viane said. "The one picture we would like to emulate is 'Ace Ventura,' which did $72 million. The minute we hit $60 million (after Martin Luther King weekend), that's the number we'll be chasing."
Rounding out the Top 10 was Universal's PG-13-rated drama "Snow Falling On Cedars," which went wide in its third week with an unexciting estimated $4.01 million at 1,150 theaters (+1,147 theaters, $3,490 per theater). Its total is approximately $4.2 million. Directed by Scott Hicks ("Shine"), it stars Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, Youki Kudoh, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard, Rick Yune and Max von Sydow.
Last weekend saw no new arrivals in wide or high-profile platform release.
Last weekend saw no national sneak previews.
On the expansion front, last weekend saw Miramax's PG-13-rated drama "The Cider House Rules" go wider in its fifth week, placing 13th with an OK ESTIMATED $3.28 million at 816 theaters (+484 theaters, $4,013 per theater). Its total is approximately $8.4 million. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it stars Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Paul Rudd and Michael Caine.
"With the addition of 484 screens this weekend, we only dropped 14% on a per-screen basis," Miramax Senior Vice President, Marketing, David Kaminow said Sunday morning. "We were hoping for $3,000 a screen this weekend, and the fact that we did $4,000 is great. Even more encouraging are theaters that are in their third, fourth and fifth week, dwelling on this. It's taken a little time for the movie to get its legs, but (that's what we're seeing now)."
Kaminow pointed to a number of examples, including, "in New York, the Angelika, in its fifth week, is up 73%. In L.A., in Century City, we're up 136% in Week 5. The Sunset Five (in West Hollywood) is up 53% in Week 5. The Lido in Newport Beach is up 30% in Week 5. In Pasadena, the Playhouse is up 16% in Week 3.
"This is what's going on around the country. The movie's really taking hold and receiving great word of mouth."
Universal's R-rated drama "The Hurricane" expanded in its second week, placing 14th with an encouraging estimated $2.45 million at 159 theaters (+148 theaters, $15,405 per theater). Its total is approximately $3.1 million. Directed by Norman Jewison, it stars Denzel Washington as wrongly imprisoned boxing champion Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
"Hurricane," which is generating Oscar buzz, received three Golden Globe nominations -- best picture, best actor/drama (Washington) and best director (Jewison).
Columbia's R-rated drama "The End of the Affair" expanded in its sixth week, placing 18th with an unromantic estimated $0.65 million at 92 theaters (+34 theaters, $7,065 per theater). Its total is approximately $2.4 million. Directed by Neil Jordan, it stars Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea.
"We're intending to go wide to about 700 or so theaters on Jan. 21," Sony's Jeff Blake said Sunday. "We're certainly performing (as) one of the better limiteds consistently, so hopefully we'll be ready to go on Golden Globe weekend."
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend - took in approximately $93.79 million last weekend, up approximately 11.04% from $84.46 million for the comparable weekend last year.
Last weekend's key film gross was down approximately 15.4% from the $108.31 million that key films took in during the prior weekend.
Last year, Buena Vista's third week of "A Civil Action" was first with $15.16 million at 1,802 theaters ($8,415 per theater); and Universal's third weekend of "Patch Adams" was second with $12.69 million at 2,770 theaters, $4,580 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $27.9 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $21.3 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES
Based on business by key films, last weekend's top six distributors were the following:
Warner Bros. was first with two films ("The Green Mile" and "Any Given Sunday") grossing an estimated $18.72 million or 20% of the market.
Buena Vista (Touchstone and Disney) was second with three films ("Toy Story 2," "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" and "Bicentennial Man") grossing an estimated $17.7 million or 18.9% of the market.
Sony Pictures Entertainment (Columbia, TriStar) was third with two films ("Stuart Little" and "The End Of the Affair") grossing an estimated $12.15 million or 13% of the market.
Paramount was fourth with two films ("The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Sleepy Hollow") grossing an estimated $10.95 million or 11.7% of the market.
Universal was fifth with four films ("Snow Falling On Cedars," "The Hurricane," "End Of Days" and "Man On the Moon") grossing an estimated $10.83 million or 11.5% of the market.
DreamWorks was sixth with one film ("Galaxy Quest") grossing an estimated $8.3 million or 8.8% of the market.
(11) "Anna and the King"/Fox: Theaters: 2,004 (-125) Gross: $3.55 million (-35%) Average per theater: $1,771 Total: $30.9 million
(12) "Man On the Moon"/Universal: Theaters: 2,065 (-14) Gross: $3.5 million (-35%) Average per theater: $1,695 Total: $30.4 million
(13) "The Cider House Rules"/Miramax: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(14) "Hurricane"/Universal: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(15) "The World Is Not Enough"/MGM: Theaters: 1,317 (-395) Gross: $1.76 million (-39%) Average per theater: $1,335 Total: $120.8 million
(16) "Sleepy Hollow"/Paramount: Theaters: 1,070 (-422) Gross: $1.15 million (-26%) Average per theater: $1,075 Total: $94.8 million
(17) "End of Days"/Universal: Theaters: 813 (-250) Gross: $0.87 million (-32%) Average per theater: $1,065 Total: $64.6 million
(18) "The End of the Affair"/Columbia: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(19) "Being John Malkovich"/USA Films: Theaters: 235 (-14) Gross: $0.47 million (-1%) Average per theater: $1,000 Total: $19 million
(20) "Mansfield Park"/Miramax: Theaters: 139 (-9) Gross: $0.37 million (-12%) Average per theater: $2,660 Total: $3.1 million
(21) "Liberty Heights"/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 109 (-6) Gross: $0.28 million (-34%) Average per theater: $2,570 Total: $2.7 million
(22) "The Bone Collector"/Universal: Theaters: 427 (0) Gross: $0.20 million (-45%) Average per theater: $460 Total: $64.1 million
(23) "Cradle Will Rock"/BV: Theaters: 38 (0) Gross: $0.17 million (-15%) Average per theater: $4,429 Total: $1.0 million
(24) "Girl, Interrupted"/Columbia: Theatres: 9 (0) Gross: $0.15 million (+21%) Average per theater: $16,206 Total: $0.7 million
(25) "Tumbleweeds"/Fine Line: Theaters: 156 (-151) Gross: $0.10 million (-59%) Average per theater: $640 Total: $1.2 million
(26) "The Best Man"/Universal: Theaters: 144 (-9) Gross: $0.087 million (-45%) Average per theater: $605 Total: $33.7 million
(27) "Angela's Ashes"/Paramount: Theatres: 6 (0) Gross: $0.060 million (-3%) Average per theater: $9,996 Total: $0.3 million
(28) "Titus"/Fox Searchlight: Theatres: 4 (+2) Gross: $0.040 million Average per theater: $10,003 Total: $0.2 million
(29) "Topsy-Turvy"/USA Films: Theaters: 1 (0) Gross: $0.036 million (+35%) Average per theater: $36,004 Total: $0.2 million
(30) "Play It To the Bone"/B V: Theaters: 1 (0) Gross: $0.004 million (-5%) Average per theater: $3,709 Total: $17,000