'Ratatouille' runs the table with $47.2 million debut

Willis 5-day is hardy

Read about the "Ratatouille" game

Moviegoers ate up "Ratatouille" during the weekend as the latest dish from Pixar Animation Studios captured the top spot at the North American boxoffice with an estimated $47.2 million.

At the same time, action fans flocked to 20th Century Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard," which ranked second with an estimated three-day tally of $33.2 million. With the sequel opening Wednesday, "Die Hard" ended the weekend with a five-day estimated cume of $48.2 million, a whisker ahead of "Ratatouille's" three-day gross.

On the specialty films front, Michael Moore's health-care documentary "Sicko" received an upbeat diagnosis. After opening in one theater in New York the previous weekend, it expanded into 441 theaters, where it drew an estimated $4.5 million for a ninth-place showing overall. Its per-theater average of $10,204 was the second best in the top 10, behind only "Ratatouille's" $11,987 average.

Although playing in more than double the number of theaters (977) as "Sicko," Focus Features' "Evening," with an all-star cast headed by Vanessa Redgrave, pulled in an estimated $3.5 million to squeeze into the top 10.

After four weekends in which business registered a decline from the comparable frames a year ago, an energized boxoffice rebounded. The top 10 films collected an estimated $141.6 million, up 2% from the same weekend last year, when Warner Bros. Pictures' "Superman Returns" led the list with a $42.5 million bow.

Buena Vista Pictures' release of director Brad Bird's "Ratatouille" didn't reach the heights of recent Pixar offerings; "Cars" got off to a $60.1 million start in June 2006, while Bird's previous feature, "The Incredibles," debuted to $70.5 million in November 2004. But the G-rated "Ratatouille" was regarded by many as a tougher sell given that it revolves around a rat, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who dreams of becoming a top chef.

In a summer of presold sequels, it was the first nonsequel since the arrival of "Disturbia" in late April to command the top spot.

The film charmed critics -- it earned a 95% positive rating on the review compilation site RottenTomatoes -- and moviegoers sampled by CinemaScore rewarded it with an A rating. So in addition to attracting the family crowd, the picture should have ongoing adult appeal. For its debut, the studio reported that about 45% of the audience was composed of adults -- both those who accompanied children and those who came on their own -- which is on par with previous Pixar openings.

"We're off to a really, really good start," Buena Vista distribution president Chuck Viane said. "The idea of placing it pre-Fourth of July weekend means we'll have a big weekend this weekend and next."

Typically, Pixar films go on to gross four to five times their opening weekend, so "Ratatouille" ultimately could rise into $200 million territory.

After a 12-year hiatus, which can be an eternity in the sequel business, the PG-13 "Die Hard" also benefited from upbeat reviews -- 78% positive, according to RottenTomatoes -- and enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

The latest installment in the long-running series, this one directed by Len Wiseman ("Underworld: Evolution"), sees Willis' embattled cop John McClane combat au courant cyber terrorism. It easily outdistanced the openings of the previous "Die Hard" movies, which date to 1988, when initial weekends didn't score the same numbers they do today. The previous film in the franchise, 1995's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," opened to $22.2 million in 2,525 theaters.

The newest film also proved to be Willis' second-best opening, trailing only "Armageddon," which bowed to $36.1 million in 1998.

"John McClane is a great everyman character, and all four (audience) quadrants love this picture," Fox senior vp distribution Bert Livingston said. "Our exit polls are the best we've seen since 'Speed' (in 1994), and it's going to play for a long time."

The Weinstein Co., which is releasing "Sicko" through Lionsgate, also reported satisfied patrons, reporting that 93% of the audience said they would strongly recommend the movie.

According to the Weinsteins, "Sicko" scored the second-best wide opening ever for a documentary -- behind only their own "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore's previous film, which bowed to $23.9 million in 868 theaters in 2004 -- though docu openings are more difficult to compare since they generally involve graduated rollouts.

One challenge that "Sicko" faces is that its subject tends to resonate more with older moviegoers. In contrast, college-age crowds were immediately galvanized by "Fahrenheit" because the Iraq War impacted directly on their age group, which was fighting the war.

"The first audience that came out was over 35, but by Saturday night it started to cross over and we got much younger audiences," Weinstein Co. co-head Harvey Weinstein said. "I'm elated and absolutely thrilled. We didn't spend that much on TV, but I think the (health care) issue will catch up with the movie."

Acknowledging how effectively Paramount Vantage orchestrated long-running theater engagements last year for "An Inconvenient Truth," Weinstein said that the plan is to follow a similar playbook; "Sicko" will add about 200 theaters Tuesday in advance of the July 4 holiday. "Then it will be steady as we go," he said. "We could blast this out and get a great gross, but I'd like to stay in theaters for a long time."

At the moment, the plan is to slowly increase theaters over subsequent weekends.

Among the holdovers, last weekend's top film, Universal Pictures' comedy "Evan Almighty," fell 52%, attracting an estimated $15.1 million to bring its cumulative gross to $60.2 million.

The horror film "1408," a Weinstein Co. film that is being released by MGM, moved from second to fourth overall, declining 48%. Its weekend take of an estimated $10.6 million brought its tally to slightly more than $40 million.

Playing in 1,650 theaters, Vantage's "A Mighty Heart" lost ground, dropping 61% as it picked up an additional estimated $1.6 million to bring its cume to slightly less than $7 million.

In seventh place, Warner Bros. Pictures' "Ocean's Thirteen" crossed the $100 million mark during the weekend, the ninth film this year to surmount that plateau. With an added estimated $6.1 million, its cume rose to $102.1 million.

Buena Vista also saw its "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" scale new heights. Domestically, the action picture ranked eighth as it plundered an estimated $5 million to bring its domestic purse to $295.8 million. Worldwide, it hit an estimated $904.7 million, becoming the ninth film in boxoffice history to top the $900 million mark and making it the year's top-grosser globally, a fact that even competing execs at Sony Pictures, whose "Spider-Man 3" had been holding the title, saluted.

Sony Pictures Classics established a more modest record with its domestic release of Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book." In its 13th weekend, the film drew an estimated $36,500, bringing its North American total to $4.2 million. That makes it the biggest-grossing Dutch film in North America, supplanting "Antonia's Line," which First Look released in 1996.

Rounding out the top 10, Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" ranked fifth with an estimated $9 million and a cume of $114.8 million, and Universal's "Knocked Up" was sixth with an estimated $7.4 million and a total tally of $122.4 million.

For the week ending Thursday, total boxoffice amounted to $214.1 million, below the $241.3 million earned during the comparable week last year. The year-to-date boxoffice is $4.5 billion, up nearly 4% compared with $4.4 billion in 2006. Admissions are running 1% behind.