And we're here... One of the most interesting Christmas weeks in recent memory is upon us, not because there's a plethora of films expected to be enormous, though there are those. It's more to do with how many have been packed into this period after passing up on two wide open weekends earlier in December. Nine films hit wide release between now and Christmas Day, making this a grand experiment in how many films can find room in the most lucrative marketplace of the year.
Weekend Forecast for December 21-23, 2018
By Reagen Sulewski
December 21, 2018
We kicked things off on Wednesday with Mary Poppins Returns, the 54 (!) years later sequel to the Disney classic based on the P.L. Travers books, which made Julie Andrews a star and introduced a generation to what a Cockney accent sounds nothing at all like. Emily Blunt takes over as the titular magical nanny who arrives to make the Banks house all ship-shape, while taking everyone on magical adventures in fantasy lands. It's a fairly unquestioned classic of family film and has achieved the rare feat of staying relevant over the decades, holding up to its original reputation.
Why, then, is a sequel (*not* a remake as they're very insistent upon) even a thing? Well, there's always the pure mercantile argument, but it does seem to have a point of view, as Mary Poppins has come back (as she promised!) decades after the Banks children have grown up, with Michael having had kids of his own and having recently lost his wife. The “family is the most important thing” message of the original isn't exactly subtle (though not trite), but a refresh on this makes sense, with some advances in tech allowing for slicker looking animated sequences. And she's one of the most beloved characters in cinema history, so why let that just fade away?
The question becomes who can fill the shoes (and umbrella) of Andrews. Emily Blunt takes on the grand challenge, which seems about as perfect as you're gonna get – cheerful and chipper with a hint of edge as needed. Lin Manuel-Miranda plays the Dick Van Dyke-like role as a jack-of-all-trades who knows Mary and joins on their adventures. Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw play the grown Banks children, while Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury and OK, Dick Van Dyke make appearances in supporting roles. Rob Marshall, lately of Into the Woods, directs, brings his Broadway influenced style to what is largely a big production musical.
Reviews have been ... respectful without raving about it, which to me is a bit of a troublesome development. I think there's a natural benefit of the doubt that would be granted to Disney in this case, and if that's cracking a little, that leans away from the idea that this is a repeat of the masterpiece of the original. However, entering Christmas, this is perfectly positioned to take advantage of family viewing. Wednesday saw it bring in slightly under $5 million, which is an OK number, though it's much less than other pre-Christmas Wednesday releases. The theme for all these releases is going to be that opening weekend is very much not the key to their final totals, as the whole week of Christmas break is going to be day after day of amazing totals, like an extra opening weekend or two. This figure points to around a $32 million start.
While Mary Poppins is a good candidate to win the marathon, the sprint likely belongs to Aquaman. We're now living in a world where DC can't make a good Superman movie, but knocks a freaking Aquaman movie out of the park. Look, I don't understand it any better than you, OK?
Jason Momoa returns to the role after appearing as an amuse bouche in the Justice League movie, getting an origin story all his own, and it looks like nothing else, but an underwater Black Panther. As Arthur Curry, the son of lighthouse keeper and the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman! Who gets a fight scene! They've gone mad with power), he has a telepathic bond with everything that dwells in the ocean, and this becomes useful somehow. Anyway, there's the great Scepter of Macguffin, and he's tasked to retrieve it to stop *another* guy who talks to fish, with the help of Amber Heard in a cherry-colored wig and Willem Dafoe (in his second movie where he teaches someone advanced swimming to send them on a quest). And then all of a sudden it's a neon-filtered battle movie with the fate of both wet and dry land at stake.
Reviews are good but let's be real – we're talking about an Aquaman movie here, long held to be a joke character, and with DC's track record, knives would be out for anything. The important part is that we're not dealing with a Green Lantern situation. After the triple fails of BvS, Suicide Squad and Justice League, people are looking for some fun out of a DC movie, and this candy-colored epic might just serve that role. This has the best chance of breaking out of the December opening weekend effect but I'd still expect even a great result to top out at around $60 million.
The Transformers franchise was, just a few short years ago, one of the most lucrative in the world, until suddenly people had enough of Michael Bay and his visually incoherent nonsense. This was in part because he combined it with some written nonsense, taking Transformers lore and linking it to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (!), and the most recent film in the main continuity was punished for it. Having possibly learned their lesson, Paramount goes back to basics of sorts with Bumblebee.
A prequel, set in the 1980s, it sees the title character in his more familiar Volkswagen Beetle form, trying to find refuge on Earth after another battle with Decepticons. Pulled out of a junkyard by a teenage girl (played by Hailee Steinfeld) and brought back to working order, the pair are then on the run from both the military (represented here by a spec ops unit led by John Cena) and Decepticons looking to finish the job. By going small scale, Bumblebee appears to have solved the problem of bloat in these movies, approaching something not unlike (at least in style if not in quality) the E.T. of Transformers movies, while hitting a Stranger Things-like note of strategic nostalgia.
That may be due in large part to director Travis Knight, who was behind the fantastic Kubo and the Two Strings. The jump to blockbusters has kneecapped many directors before him in recent years, but based on the ecstatic (but filtered through low expectations) reviews, it really does seem like he's pulled off the trick. Audiences are likely to be once ... fifth? fice? bitten on this series, so will take some convincing that it's actually good. That it's released over Christmas gives it that chance, but it should start with about $42 million.
While not the highest profile of the weekend's new dramas, Second Act may be its highest grossing one, at least by a little. Starring Jennifer Lopez and directed by Peter Segal (of Waterboy and Get Smart fame), it's “The Internship but old-fashioned business and with a *lady* isn't that nice”. Lopez gets the chance to reinvent herself with a Madison Avenue firm at the ripe old age of forty-mumble and wonderful lessons are learned by all. It's about as generic a star vehicle as can be imagined but Christmas is often built on compromise picks at the movie theater so this could be that film. Also starring Vanessa Hudgens, Milo Ventimiglia, Leah Remini and Treat Williams, it's garnered only average reviews, and with its thoroughly unremarkable and inoffensive ads, should be due for around $6 million this weekend.
When prestige films go wrong, they go very wrong indeed. Welcome to Marwen is a fictionalized take on a real life person featured in the documentary Marwencol, about a man who was beaten within an inch of his life, and who built a highly detailed model of the town he lived in along with dolls that represent people in his life. As directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Steve Carell, it dives into this fantasy world, depicting him interacting with his creations and working through his trauma.
The visual style of the film is remarkable, creating an eerie effect on the town's characters, who all appear to be dolls brought to life. That may be as far as the thought went for this film as it looks about as shallow as can be in its psychology. It also seems a bit timid in its advertising, not wanting to point out that the attack was due to the main character being a cross-dresser – telling me that it's not a confident team behind the film, and being afraid of scaring off what is probably an elderly audience from what they might perceive as a “gay” film. Also starring Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae, Diane Kruger and Eiza Gonzalez, it's a bit of Oscar bait that's falling well short, slipping in to saccharine. I expect a big swing and a miss here, with a $6 million opening.
Competing costume dramas with very different tones expand into national release on Friday, with The Favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots both hitting around 800 venues. The first, a comedy starring Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, sees the latter two competing for the favor of an ailing Queen Anne in a no holds barred palace intrigue story. The second film sees Saiorse Ronan and Margot Robbie in a more traditional story about the battle between the two sisters who aimed to lead England in the 1500s, with Ronan playing Mary and Robbie playing Queen Elizabeth. Both should see around $3 million this weekend.
Christmas Day sees two wide releases, with Holmes & Watson and Vice. The first sees Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in a broad Sherlock Holmes comedy in their improv style. Clearly the idea here is to recreate a Step Brothers like connection again, but is directed by Etan Cohen (maybe most famous for tricking Bill Murray into the Garfield movies?). Vice is a movie about Dick Cheney from Adam McKay, who actually made those two funny in their previous connections, starring Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell, which has garnered plenty of early Oscar attention. Christmas Day movies are notorious unpredictable, but I'd expect around $8 million for Holmes, and $3 million for Vice.
Fighting against these films is our returning champ, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which opened to $35 million and proved a point about animated Marvel films. With near rapturous word-of-mouth and the Christmas weekend legs coming up, I'd expect a solid $27 million here.
The Christmas theme should start kicking in for The Grinch, which made it to the promised land after a Thanksgiving debut. An increase might not be out of the question, but holding steady at $12 million seems reasonable. Clint Eastwood's The Mule had a strong open at $17 million but without a lot of Oscar noise, should drop to about $12 million this frame. Ralph Breaks the Internet is another solid family option, though it's probably the fourth choice at best. I'd give it $7 million.