Pixar's weekend is off the 'WALL-E'

Universal's counterprogramming 'Wanted' likely to collect enough for No. 2

R2-D2, C-3PO, Robby the Robot, Robocop and the T-1000 all better step aside to make room: As of this weekend, there will be a new robo-star in town.

His name is WALL-E — an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class — and the little fella is a bit of a drone who has been left behind on Earth to clean up mankind's mess. The hero of Pixar's latest, similarly titled "WALL-E," he makes his debut in 3,992 theaters nationwide as Disney rolls out the G-rated film.

While the weekend's other new wide release, the R-rated action film "Wanted," should do a brisk business of its own, it's not looking to compete for the crowds expected to rush to embrace "WALL-E."

The early reviews have been ecstatic, hailing the Pixar team, this time headed by director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") for raising the animation bar again. So it's a safe bet that Pixar will enjoy its ninth successive No. 1 opening.

"Certainly, the reviews that have been springing up all day have been nothing short of fantastic," Disney distribution chief Chuck Viane said. "And with schools out for vacation, there is a big family audience out there."

With kids finally out of school nationwide, there should be plenty of demand for the movie, even though DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," which has held up well, enters its fourth weekend.

"WALL-E," which cost about $120 million, is not expected to bow as big as 2004's "The Incredibles" ($70.5 million) or 2003's "Finding Nemo" ($70.3 million), but it is expected to top the $47 million opening that "Ratatouille" achieved last summer as it pushes well into $50 million territory, possibly even flirting with the $60 million mark.

Instead of going head-to-head, Universal is aiming for a different segment of the market with "Wanted," in which James McAvoy plays an everyman drawn into a world of high-powered assassins by a supercharged Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. Director Timur Bekmambetov, until now known for the Russian "Night Watch" movies, orchestrates the nonstop action in 3,175 theaters.

This year, when the Universal/ Spyglass production budgeted at about $75 million was still shooting, Universal shifted its release date from March to this weekend.

"We saw an opportunity for counterprogramming and took advantage of it," Universal distribution head Nikki Rocco said. "The movie is very fresh and very different. And it's always a great thing when there's room for two films to play to different audiences."

As a result, "Wanted" is positioned to debut as a strong No. 2 — handicappers place its likely weekend haul in the mid- to high- $30 million range — which should set it up to play through the following Fourth of July holiday weekend, even with "Hancock," starring Will Smith, laying claim to the top spot.

This frame, with the combined muscle of "WALL-E" and "Wanted," should keep the boxoffice elevated above the comparable weekend last year — when "Ratatouille" and "Live Free or Die Hard" topped the rankings — for the fifth weekend in a row. (partialdiff)