This weekend, Cars 2 zips into 4,115 locations, topping Toy Story 3's 4,028 as the broadest Pixar launch yet, though its estimated screen count is in the same 7,000 range. Cars 2's 2,508 3D location count (including 120 IMAX venues) is only slightly higher than Toy Story 3's 2,463. Also opening nationwide, Bad Teacher shows up on around 3,800 screens at 3,049 locations.
Cars 2 marks Pixar's first sequel to something other than Toy Story, but, while the first Cars was presumably a favorite among tykes, it wasn't beloved by everyone else. It debuted to $60.1 million five years ago and closed with $244.1 million, or the equivalent of $72 million and $293 million adjusted for ticket price inflation. However, people weren't clamoring for a sequel like they were with the Toy Story movies. Cars 2 seems like the first time that Pixar hasn't targeted everyone. In its marketing, the movie comes off as a kids-only affair, pushing the Mater character into pole position with some vague spy action angle, and it will rely on the Pixar name to carry the day with the rest of the family or people without children.
The merchandising success of the first Cars seems to be the impetus behind Cars 2 (after all, its box office was second-tier for Pixar). This franchise was tailor-made for toy-making, and Cars 2 offers more toy possibilities. If that's the case, though, that contradicts Pixar's story-driven studio persona. Based on what's been displayed, Cars 2 doesn't look like a story that needed to be told nor a story that organically grew out of the first movie. In fact, the genre has shifted gears from a change-of-pace, Doc Hollywood-type comedy to a globe-trotting spy comedy, giving it a Speed Racer sheen and extra kiddie skew. For better or worse, Cars 2 comes off as a lark (albeit with a patience-trying running time of one hour and 53 minutes).
What's more, Cars 2's international storyline seems motivated by expanding the foreign audience more than anything else. At $218 million, Cars was Pixar's third lowest-grossing movie overseas, ahead of only the first Toy Story and A Bug's Life. Cars 2 should zoom past its predecessor overseas, but dumping the NASCAR theme may not help domestic playability.
Cars and Cars 2 stand out as Pixar's only movies set outside of a human context. These modes of transportation have replaced what they were designed to transport with no explanation. It's awkward in concept, but kids love cars and get a kick out of them doing human-like things. Cars 2, though, anthropomorphizes planes as well in its ads, which makes one wonder how uncomfortable it must be for the planes to have cars lodged in their bowels. And what other modes of transportation are sentient in this previously cars-only universe? Must be tough to be a train in that world, being a slave to the rails and having cars in your caboose.
Ultimately, Cars 2's appeal seems akin to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, another animated 3D sequel which made $196.6 million two years ago. The lukewarm reception to Kung Fu Panda 2 (also in 3D) isn't encouraging. However, with an 11 for 11 winning streak so far, it's hard to bet against Pixar. Up until now, the company has been best-in-class at the box office.
Meanwhile, Bad Teacher counter-programs with the promise of outrageous comedy. Its title is blunt, and its concept is easily understood, relatable and potentially topical, given the nation's education fiasco (whether the movie has the balls to give a proper indictment or not is another question). The ads, though, may not have gone far enough, as the marketers chose to emphasize a pedestrian dodgeball scene. Cameron Diaz seems to channel Billy Bob Thornton, who starred in the similar comedies Bad Santa, Bad News Bears and Mr. Woodcock, though her track record is spotty.
In Box Office Mojo's "when will you see it" polling, Cars 2's results didn't promise a smooth ride. With just over 30 percent voting to see it on opening weekend, its tracking was a bit worse than Kung Fu Panda 2 (31.2 percent) and even further behind the first Cars (34.6 percent). However, it was stronger than Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (26.5 percent). Bad Teacher chalked up a solid 18.4 percent "opening weekend" score, which was greater than Get Him to the Greek, Easy A and even Bridesmaids. Based on these and other pre-weekend indicators and historical antecedents, here's how the weekend might play out:
Bar for Success Cars 2 is no Toy Story 3, but it needs to at least be on par with Shrek Forever After and Up adjusted for ticket-price inflation (over $70 million) to tone down disappointment. To match the opening weekend attendance of the first Cars, though, it will likely need over $80 million.