By John Young
March 11, 2012 at 06:55 PM EDT

Apparently the Truffula Valley is a much better training ground for the box office than Mars, as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax had no trouble fending off Disney’s expensive new sci-fi arrival John Carter.

Universal’s The Lorax dropped a relatively mild 44 percent for $39.1 million in its second weekend — a drop that virtually replicates the second-weekend decline of 45 percent for 2008’s Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! Today The Lorax will pass The Vow to become the year’s top grosser, finishing the weekend with a cumulative tally of nearly $122 million in just 10 days.

But the real story here, of course, is John Carter, which Disney infamously spent $250 million to produce. With that kind of price tag, Carter really needed to open to $50 million at a bare minimum. Other films that reportedly cost around $250 million include Spider-Man 3, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Avatar, and those four movies debuted to an average of $99 million.

John Carter, on the other hand, collected an estimated $30.6 million this weekend. That’s slightly better than the $25 million or so that most in the industry were predicting, and would represent a solid start for many films. But it’s a dismal showing for such a costly project.

Both the movie and its marketing campaign are to blame for the soft opening. The film, which garnered mixed reviews and marked the first live-action undertaking for Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), is based on Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 book A Princess of Mars. That book was the first in a series of Barsoom sci-fi novels that later influenced films such as Star Wars and Avatar.

However, since the general public is not overly familiar with the Barsoom works, John Carter appeared derivative of the very things it inspired. Also not helping the movie out was its cast, headed by an unproven Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights). True, Avatar featured the similarly untested Sam Worthington, but James Cameron’s name is as big as any movie star, and he at least surrounded Worthington with some familiar faces like Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez. The most familiar face in John Carter was… Mark Strong?

But it’s really Disney’s marketing that performed a disservice to the movie. For months, John Carter suffered from muddled ads and trailers, none more misjudged than its Super Bowl commercial, which wrongly assumed audiences were so familiar with the John Carter brand that simply seeing the movie’s title would excite them.

Also hurting matters was the generic title, which Disney shortened from John Carter of Mars with the reported belief that “of Mars” would turn off female moviegoers. But Mars is the project’s major selling point. Without it, the movie became a sphinx to the general public. Who is John Carter? Where is he? Why can he leap great distances? I understand the desire to not reveal too much of a film’s story, but these are basic questions that weren’t answered by Disney’s advertising until right before John Carter‘s release. By then, it was too late.

The film tilted toward men, whom Disney says comprised 63 percent of the audience. It also skewed a bit older than one might expect a PG-13 sci-fi adventure would, with 59 percent of the audience over age 25. Showings in 3-D represented 64 percent of the movie’s gross. And audiences generally liked John Carter, with CinemaScore participants giving it a “B+” rating. One CinemaScore finding is particularly worth noting: Only 8 percent of those polled said Taylor Kitsch was their reason for buying a ticket. Compare that number to 72 percent for Safe House star Denzel Washington.

The week’s two other new releases, Silent House and A Thousand Words, didn’t make much of an impression. Silent House, an R-rated shot-in-one-take horror flick starring Elizabeth Olsen, debuted to a quiet $7 million and virtually tied Act of Valor for fourth place. What it will be remembered for most, though, is its “F” CinemaScore rating. Silent House becomes the second film branded with the dreaded grade this year, joining  The Devil Inside — a CinemaScore “F” now seems specifically reserved for horror films with unsatisfying endings.

A Thousand Words, which opened in sixth place with $6.4 million, was another misfire for star Eddie Murphy. The $40 million comedy was shot in 2008 and intended for a 2009 release, but was held up for three years when DreamWorks split from Paramount. Now, it has the distinction of joining Murphy’s other recent flops: 2008’s Meet Dave and 2009’s Imagine That, which debuted to $5.3 million and $5.5 million, respectively.

Among holdovers, the R-rated teen party flick Project X fared surprisingly well, slipping only 45 percent for $11.6 million. That duplicates the trajectory of Chronicle, another “found-footage” film starring teenagers, which dropped 45 percent its second weekend. And Act of Valor fell 48 percent for $7 million in its third weekend, pushing its total gross to $56.1 million.

In limited release, the R-rated ensemble comedy Friends With Kids, starring Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Megan Fox, and a quarter of Bridesmaids alums (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, and Chris O’Dowd), had a so-so debut with $2.2 million from 374 theaters. That equates to a per-location average of $5,799. The Ewan McGregor-Emily Blunt romantic dramedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen reeled in $240,000 at 18 theaters, while the Oscar-nominated Israeli drama Footnote took in $48,100 at two locations.

1. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax — $39.1 mil

2. John Carter — $30.6 mil

3. Project X — $11.6 mil

4. Silent House — $7.0 mil

4. Act of Valor — $7.0 mil

6. A Thousand Words — $6.4 mil

Read more:

How will ‘John Carter’ affect Taylor Kitsch’s career? Industry insiders weigh in

Box office update: ‘John Carter’ is No. 1 with $9.8 mil on Friday, but ‘The Lorax’ should win weekend