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Turtle power! ''TMNT'' is No. 1

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Warner Bros.

Cowabunga, dude! Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael have returned with force, as TMNT earned $25.5 million, according to Sunday’s estimates, to win one of the most crowded weekends ever at the multiplex.

But beating out five other major new releases and a handful of heavy-hitting holdovers wasn’t the only reason the Turtles’ triumph was so impressive. On the strength of a solid A- CinemaScore from an audience that was, not surprisingly, 58 percent male and 64 percent under age 25, the fully animated film’s first-weekend sum beat those of its three live-action predecessors, most notably 1990’s blockbuster Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which bowed with $25.4 mil en route to a $135.3 mil domestic total). In fact, it’s probably a good thing that TMNT earned as much as it did this time around, for it’ll confront stiff kid-baiting competition from the animated Meet the Robinsons next weekend. More on that battle in the days to come — right now, though, I have to do some serious self-back-patting for hitting this most difficult of difficult predictions almost squarely on the mark!

Also continuing to glory in the gaze of the box office bull’s eye, 300 (No. 2) held steady despite facing its first big test, dropping only 38 percent to earn $20.5 mil in its third inning. Even as it fell out of the top spot, the bloody graphic-novel adaptation brought its North American total to $162.4 mil in just 17 days — enough to rank it 127th on the all-time domestic list, according to Box Office Mojo. Not bad for a movie with a very moderate production budget of $65 mil. (I dunno… the Spartans all die in 300, but do you think Warner Bros. will figure out a way to make a sequel? Hmm…)

Following a bit further behind were the rest of the weekend’s slew of new movies, each of which fared pretty well with audiences critically (all got CinemaScore reviews of either A- or B+), though less so financially. Mark Wahlberg’s assassination thriller Shooter (No. 3) grossed $14.5 mil, making it the actor’s worst wide-opening vehicle since 2001’s Rock Star (which started with $6 mil). Still, it passed powerful fourth-weekend mainstay Wild Hogs, which dropped another slight 25 percent to earn $14.4 mil at No. 4. The magical children’s flick The Last Mimzy rounded out the top five with a mild $10.2 mil debut. The horror sequel-remake The Hills Have Eyes 2 earned a slight $10 mil at No. 7 (that’s a sizable $5.7 mil off of the debut of its predecessor, last spring’s The Hills Have Eyes). The Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle-9/11 drama Reign Over Me (No. 8) scored a small $8 mil in just 1,671 theaters, for an unspectacular $4,788 average. And the urban-swimming true story Pride sank at No. 9 with a mere $4 mil gross.

As for the small-release independent fare (which I admit I have given little attention to in recent weeks due to a dearth of any notable standouts), the acclaimed Indian-American literary adaptation The Namesake expanded to 117 theaters and brought its three-week domestic total to $2.7 mil, on a sound average of $11,581.

That was yet another piece of good news in a year that’s been chock full o’ it. To wit, pal Paul at Media by Numbers reports that the total box office was up a huge 28 percent over the same period last year, making this the fourth consecutive ”up” weekend of the spring. And when you add that fact to the good news that 2007’s overall revenue (of $1.959 billion and counting) is up 7 percent and that admissions have increased by more than 5 percent… well, don’t look now, friends, but I may just have to reinvent myself as an optimist! We shall see, oh, we shall see.

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