Updated 8:52 a.m. PT March 3
"The Lorax," with its green message, is turning into box office gold for Universal. The studio's Dr. Seuss tale took $17.4 million on Friday and is looking at a $60.4 million weekend domestically.
That is far beyond the studio's pre-release estimates of around $40 million -- and well more than the $44-to-$50 million estimates of less conservative box-office watchers outside the studio.
The other new movie of the weekend, the Warner Bros. comedy "Project X," took an estimated $8.2 million on Friday, putting it on track for a solid $19.8 million weekend.
If the $60 million estimate on the 3D "The Lorax" proves correct, the PG-rated film will have the biggest weekend opening since "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1" opened to $138 million last November.
And it will be the first animated film since "Cars 2" was released on June 24, 2011, to open to more than $60 million. That movie debuted to $66.1 million.
Audiences are clearly enjoying "The Lorax," which received an "A" score from the audience survey firm Cinemascore. "Project X" earned a "B" score.
"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" is poised to open bigger than any other movie so far this year -- easily taking $44 million, and perhaps as much as $50 million, at the weekend box office.
Universal's animated 3D film based on the beloved Dr. Seuss book is on track to more than double the take of this weekend's other new movie, the Warner Bros. comedy "Project X," which is looking at a $20 million opening.
Meanwhile, "The Artist," which won five Oscars, including best picture, last Sunday, is expanding from 966 locations to 1,756.
And "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," which on Wednesday surpassed the $244.9 million that the original "Journey to the Center of the Earth" took worldwide in 2008, is all but certain to cross the quarter-billion dollar mark worldwide this weekend.
Also read: 'The Lorax' Finally Gets Dr. Seuss Right
The PG-rated "The Lorax" is likely to do some pretty heavy damage to "Journey 2's" box office this weekend, as both movies are family films.
"The Lorax" will mark Universal's second $40 million-plus opening of the year. "Safe House" opened to $40.2 million on Feb. 10. That same weekend, Sony's Screen Gems opened "The Vow" to $41.2 million, which is the year's biggest opener so far.
"Lorax" is ending that -- and is likely to keep the record until March 23, when Lionsgate opens "The Hunger Games." That movie is tracking powerfully and could take $100 million.
For now, though, "The Lorax" is the great orange hope.
Tracking from the audience research firm NRG is through the roof: 90 percent of moviegoers reported awareness of the movie, and 93 percent of women 25 and older said they were familiar with it.
More importantly, 48 percent of women 25 and older and 46 percent of those younger than 25 said they had "definite" interest in seeing it. The numbers are slightly lower among men -- 35 percent of men 25 and older said they have "definite" interest in seeing it, while 30 percent of those younger than 25 report such interest.
And it's getting pretty good reviews. Metacritic gives the movie a 62 rating, Movie Review Intelligence gives it a 67 and RottenTomatoes gives it a 70.
Universal's fairly conservative projections have the movie taking more than the animated "Rango," which opened to $38 million this same weekend in 2010. Box-office watchers outside Universal estimate the movie will take $44 million to $50 million.
"The Lorax" is directed by Chris Renaud, whose 2010 “Despicable Me” opened to $56.4 million domestically and ultimately grossed $543 million worldwide.
The movie is about "a boy who searches for the one thing that will help him win the affection of the girl of his dreams," Universal says. "To find it, he must discover the story of the Lorax, the grumpy yet charming creature who fights to protect his world."
Suess' original story, of course, centered on the Lorax's fight to save a forest full of kaleidoscopic trees from capitalistic greed.
The movie's environmental message has earned the wrath of Fox Business Network's Lou Dobbs, who said the movie is about "a woodland creature that speaks for the trees and fights rampant industrialism."
Dobbs said that with "The Lorax," Hollywood "is trying to indoctrinate our children" by "demonizing the 1% and espousing green energy policies."
The movie opens at 3,728 locations.
Warner's R-rated "Project X," meanwhile, is tracking strongest among people younger than 25.
According to NRG, 68 percent of men younger than 25 and 56 percent of women in that age range are aware of the movie. Fifty-four percent of those men report "definite" interest in seeing it, while 32 percent of young women say they have "definite" interest in the movie.
Its reviews, however, are less-than-stellar.
Metacritic gives it a 44, Movie Review Intelligence gives it a 41.2 and Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 29.
It still looks like a good bet for Warner Bros: The studio expects it will take somewhere in the high teens, while less conservative observers figure it will take $20 million. Considering the movie had a budget around $12 million, that's a pretty good number.
"Project X" is a comedy about three high school students who throw a birthday party to make a name for themselves. But as these things go, the party spirals out of control.
"Project X" opens in 3,055 locations.