"Cars 2," a Pixar sequel judged by critics to be the worst movie produced by the Disney-owned animation studio, sped to the front of the pack at the weekend box office in North America.

According to studio estimates issued Sunday, the massive merchandising opportunity earned about $68 million during its first three days of release across the United States and Canada.

Heading into the weekend, both studio executives at Pixar's Walt Disney Co parent and industry pundits had doubted "Cars 2" would exceed the $60 million start for the first "Cars" in 2006.

Indeed by one major benchmark, it did fall short since the inflation-adjusted opening for "Cars" was estimated at $72 million by analysts at Box Office Mojo. The sequel also had the benefit of premium pricing for 3-D engagements.

The only other new release in the top 10, the raunchy Cameron Diaz comedy "Bad Teacher," opened at No. 2 with a better than expected $31 million. Last weekend's champion, the underwhelming superhero film "Green Lantern," slid to No. 3 with $18.4 million.

Total ticket sales were up about seven percent from the year-ago period at about $176 million, according to the box office division at Hollywood.com.

 

PIXAR TARNISHED?

Critics, who usually fall over themselves to praise Pixar movies, lambasted "Cars 2." The Wall Street Journal said the film "seldom gets beyond mediocrity," while the Chicago Tribune said it was "virtually joke-free." By contrast, Pixar's "Toy Story 3," which opened to $110 million a year ago, was among the best reviewed films of 2010.

The target audience of young boys and their parents was clearly revved up by "Cars 2," giving the film a bullish "A-minus" in exit polling conducted by CinemaScore.

Some on Wall Street worried that Pixar's impeccable movie-making credentials would be tarnished by an unseemly focus on churning out "Toys" memorabilia.

"'Cars 2' clearly exists because of the massive merchandising success of the original film, which has driven nearly $10 billion in global sales," Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen & Co, said in a commentary. "We believe protecting the brand value of Pixar is more important."

As with Disney's recent "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel, which badly trailed its predecessors in North America but was huge overseas, "Cars 2" is expected to fire on all cylinders internationally. The storyline follows the talking autos in Grand Prix races across Europe and Japan.

The film debuted to $42.9 million in 18 territories representing 25 percent of the international market. Top markets included Russia ($9.3 million), Mexico ($8.1 million) and Brazil ($7.6 million).

"When we make movies we have to think on a global basis these days," said Chuck Viane, president of Disney's domestic theatrical distribution. Disney does not disclose budgets.

"Bad Teacher," which cost $20 million to make, was expected to approximate the $26 million opening of the similarly themed bawdy comedy "Bridesmaids" last month.

Diaz stars as a foul-mouthed teacher who competes for the affections of a colleague played by Justin Timberlake. Reviews were mixed.

The film, from Sony Corp's Columbia Pictures, earned $12.9 million overseas. Germany led the way with a first-place $6.1 million start.

The 10-day total for "Green Lantern" rose to $89.3 million in North America. The film, from Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros, reportedly cost about $200 million to make. (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Vicki Allen)