June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

When your box office competition is a beloved green ogre and the dawn of a new ice age, you know you’re in for a tough Memorial Day weekend. And tough it proved for Kate Hudson, whose first solo headliner, Disney’s family-friendly ”Raising Helen,” grossed $14 million in four days. It’s as much as her 2003 fizzler ”Alex & Emma” made in its entire run, but that’s not saying a lot. So what does the lukewarm reception mean for the starlet’s career?

Disney, for one, is optimistic. ”We saw this as an opportunity to counterprogram, and we met our expectations,” says the studio’s senior VP of publicity, Dennis Rice. ”It bodes well for Kate’s star power: Audiences find her adorable and likable, and everybody’s rooting for her.” Indeed, people seem to love Kate, what with her Hollywood-royalty lineage (raised by mom Goldie Hawn and her longtime partner, Kurt Russell), her rock-star hubby (the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson), and their infant son (Ryder, 5 months). Then there’s her bubbly, down-to-earth personality and media-friendly charm. Given ”Helen”’s ad campaign, which consisted solely of Hudson’s smiling face and those so-last-season Ugg boots, there’s little doubt that the 25-year-old actress was the prime attraction. But considering that moviegoers spent a record-breaking $250 million at the box office last weekend, and only 5 percent of that on ”Helen,” Hudson’s path seems more gold-plated than pure gold. And despite her overwhelmingly favorable reputation, some say the jury’s still out on Hudson’s A-list credentials. Says one former studio head: ”We don’t know if Kate has that type of reliable core audience that will follow her from film to film, like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts.”

Now, now…no one’s dialing career 9-1-1 just yet. Hudson has a slew of supporters who see a way for her to amp up her star wattage: Lose the lighthearted fluff in favor of more complex, diverse roles. (Since scoring a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 2000’s ”Almost Famous,” Hudson has almost exclusively made romantic comedies.) ”Kate will be a better actress as long as she keeps challenging herself,” says Donald Petrie, director of Hudson’s biggest — and only — hit, last year’s $106 million-grossing ”How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” ”An actor starts to wear thin when they take the [same] roles.” Adds casting director Sarah Halley Finn, who placed Hudson in 1999’s ”200 Cigarettes”: ”She’s grown tremendously, and I think she’s ready for a more dramatic role. After ”Jerry Maguire,” Renee Zellweger could have continued to do romantic comedies, but she took on very different things. If Kate wants to establish herself in that way, she’ll have to look at more challenging parts.”

It’s a change Hudson herself is eager to make. ”I’m excited for my 30s because that’s when you see a rainbow of more complicated characters,” she told EW from the set of her next project, ”The Skeleton Key.” ”I love making romantic comedies, but I’d get bored if I always did the same types of films. I didn’t get into this business to do that.” ”Helen” director Garry Marshall agrees: ”We talked a lot about that, and I think she’s got a much better idea of what she wants to do now. Kate’s a real actress and will prove it more and more.”

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