Weekend Forecast for December 11-13, 2009
By Reagen Sulewski
December 11, 2009

They think he's young, thin Elvis. And straight. Those poor, deluded women.

After taking a week to clear out some dead weight, the 2009 movie season is down to its final sprint to the finish with blockbusters from now until the end of the year. This weekend gives an old-fashioned showdown between family musical and Oscar-bait drama.

Several years ago in the midst of the digital animation revolution, Disney Animation announced that they were closing up their traditional animation shop in favor of going completely CGI. It was the wave of the future, you see, and with any old computer production raking in bucks with no effort, there wasn't a lot of point in doing things the old-fashioned way. Sound decision at the time, maybe, but then the boom went bust and wave after wave of sub-standard animated films weakened the market and Disney decided they might have been a bit hasty in abandoning their traditions. Hence this week's release of The Princess and the Frog.

An adaptation of a 2002 novel by way of the Brothers Grimm, this film uses the Mississippi bayou as a backdrop for the classic tale of a "princess" who finds her prince in the form of a cursed frog. In a twist on the story, the girl herself becomes a frog and the pair then must then find a way for them both to turn back human.

There's a shiny penny in for whomever can name what was the last Disney traditional animated film – anyone, anyone... time's up. If you said Home on the Range, you're either a ridiculous trivia buff or the world's largest Roseanne Barr fan (and as such I pity you). That best-forgotten film and its $50 million gross no longer has to be the torch-bearer for Disney cel-animation. The last Disney film to really look like this film though, was 1999's Tarzan, which while not a full-fledged musical, still fit in with the rest of the '90s Disney films.

With The Princess and the Frog, Disney attempts to be trying to recapture that feeling of making each of these animated musicals into an event and I think to some extent they've managed that, though with people out of the habit, it might take people a couple of films to get back into their rhythm. Notably though, this is the first Disney film to have black female protagonist (which for their troubles, got Disney some heat for stereotyping concerns. Would you rather have Song of the South?). I don't think Disney is quite back to where they were, but I do expect this to be a bit of a long term earner for the Mouse House. Look for around $31 million this weekend.

The other major film of this week is Invictus, Clint Eastwood's latest. It's the story of South Africa's 1995 World Cup Rugby win and what it meant for that country and its new president, Nelson Mandela, played here by Morgan Freeman. Shortly after taking on his role as the leader of South Africa at the end of Apartheid, Mandela searched for a way to unite black and white South Africans – seizing on the idea of rugby, the whites' passion, and the blacks' detested symbol of oppression. Enlisting the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon) to inspire all of the country, Mandela's gamble paid off and united, more or less, a fractured nation.

Eastwood's found some source of inspiration or work ethic in the last few years, with this being his ninth film this decade, and the sixth to make some kind of Oscar noise. Invictus is a little different than the rest of them, combining the sports biopic with the political message film. It also has to seem a bit weird to South Africans to have two of their national heroes played by Americans, but such is the fact of the marketplace.

While the full story of Mandela's life is probably too big for just one two-hour movie, this seems on the surface to be almost a trivial episode in his life to try and sum up the man, meaningful as these events are to South Africans. It is, however, easy enough to grasp and sum up in a tagline, and Mandela's enough of a respected figure for audiences to care about him. Opening on a smallish 2,100 or so screens, Invictus has the right amount of star power and story to still open very well, and should hit about $22 million in its debut.

Among returning films, The Blind Side still looks to be quite strong after wrenching top spot away from New Moon last weekend. It seems easily set to become Sandra Bullock's highest grossing film, although that's a record that was just set earlier this year with The Proposal. This seems to be a perfect holiday film, though, and should stick around well during the holidays. Give it $13 million for this weekend.

Meanwhile, New Moon has gone into freefall since its monumental opening weekend, its $15 million third weekend just barely more than 10% of its debut. This is about a week ahead of schedule compared to Twilight, and puts it close to par with X-Men: The Last Stand, as far as major openings and steep declines go. As remarkable as that film's opening weekend was, it seems like it may have to struggle to reach $300 million and will need help from Christmas week business to get there. This redefines front-loaded blockbusters. Give it about $6 million this frame.

The grim Brothers was a bit of a surprise in third place last weekend with $9.5 million. Starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, the Afghanistan-war drama managed to move past its downbeat story of a family torn apart by war and betrayal to become a modest success. It'll probably take some Oscar nominations to really make this a "hit", though $50 million isn't out of the question here.

A Christmas Carol has just one more week of IMAX dominance before Avatar steals all its screens like an elementary school bully at lunchtime. With a weekend total around $5 million this weekend, it's looking less and less likely that it'll have that much needed Christmas kick-up in business, or if it does, that it'll be that significant.

In limited release notes, George Clooney begins his next quest for an Oscar with Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman, which starts in 72 theaters, while Peter Jackson returns to more grounded stories with The Lovely Bones, a book-based thriller/drama, that starts in just three locations.