The monkeys have overrun the multiplex. Caesar the Chimp came, saw, and conquered the box office, as 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' outperformed expectations to debut with an estimated $54 million.
The primate prequel had been expected to premiere at No. 1, but with projected sales in the low 40s. Clearly, pundits underestimated the fan love for the 43-year-old franchise. Reviews have been surprisingly positive, especially for Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar via motion-capture, as he did when he played King Kong for Peter Jackson six years ago. And viewers have apparently forgiven leading man James Franco for his asleep-at-the-wheel performance as Oscar host, since 'Rise' marks the best weekend debut of his career (not counting the 'Spider-Man' movies, where he played a supporting role).
Holding on to second place was 'The Smurfs,' which declined just 41 percent from last week's surprise smash opening, down to an estimated $21.0 million, for a 10-day total of $76.2 million. The only movie for young kids among recent openings, the tale of the tiny blue people was expected to have long legs.
On the other hand, movies targeting young adults and men over 25 were hit hard by the unexpectedly strong start of 'Apes.' 'Cowboys & Aliens,' which barely edged out 'Smurfs' last week, fell to third with an estimated $15.7 million, down 57 percent from its debut. (It had been expected to fall to about $17 million.) Its 10-day total is $67.4 million. Expect it to continue to slide steeply as fresher genre movies come out over the next couple of weekends.
The movie most tripped up by the 'Apes' banana peel was this week's other new wide release, 'The Change-Up.' With its strong comic pedigree (from the writers of 'The Hangover' and the director of 'Wedding Crashers'), the film was predicted to join this summer's long list of successful, raunchy R-rated comedies with a likely opening of around $19 million. Instead, the Jason Bateman-Ryan Reynolds body-switch comedy opened with a weak $13.5 million, according to estimates. Blame middling-to-weak reviews, blame the still-strong 'Horrible Bosses' (also starring Bateman, and still in the top 10), or blame those damn dirty apes.
(A moment of sympathy, please, for Olivia Wilde. First 'Cowboys,' then 'Change-Up.' That's two underperforming debuts in two weeks.)
In fifth place, 'Captain America: The First Avenger'' also suffered a bit from monkeymania. It fell 49 percent to an estimated $13.0 million. In three weekends, it's earned $143.1 million.
Overall, the box-office gap between 2011 and the first seven months of last year narrowed a little. It's now 4.5 percent, or $308.8 million behind sales this time in 2010. Not even 'Apes' and this month's other potential hits are expected to earn enough to close the gap and catch up to last year before the end of the summer.
The full top 10:
1. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' $54.0 million (3,648 screens), new release
2. 'The Smurfs,' $21.0 million (3,395), $76.2 million total
3. 'Cowboys & Aliens,' $15.7 million (3,754), $67.4 million
4. 'The Change-Up,' $13.5 million (2,913), new release
5. 'Captain America: The First Avenger,' $13.0 million (3,620), $143.1 million
6. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,' $12.2 million (3,175), $342.8 million
7. 'Crazy, Stupid, Love,' $12.1 million (3,020), $42.2 million
8. 'Friends With Benefits,' $4.7 million (2,398), $48.5 million
9. 'Horrible Bosses,' $4.6 million (2,025), $105.2 million
10. 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' $3.0 million (1,854), $344.2 million
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.