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'Ratatouille' Seen as Test of Disney-Pixar Deal

Walt Disney'sanimated movie "Ratatouille" opens Friday against strong competition from better-known franchise films, drawing early industry skepticism that it can match its predecessors' success and posing a challenge for Disney.

Yet, as the film has debuted and positive reviews have poured in, the sentiment has seemed to be growing that "Ratatouille," about a cuisine-loving rat who risks his life to indulge in French cooking, could prove another box office hit.

Disney is still proving to investors that last year's acquisition of Pixar Animation is worth its $7.4 billion price tag, and "Ratatouille" is the first Pixar film to be released that was still in production when the Disney-Pixar deal was sealed.

Pixar's seven previous films all opened at No. 1 at U.S. and Canadian box offices, but "Ratatouille" faces stiff rivalry for that headline-grabbing spot from Bruce Willis action film "Live Free or Die Hard" and second-weekend audiences of family film "Evan Almighty."

"They are in a super-competitive time frame," said Paul Degarabedian, president of box office tracker Media By Numbers.

The most recent four Pixar movies have generated huge opening-weekend ticket sales, ranging from $70.5 million for "The Incredibles" in 2004 to $60.1 for "Cars" last year, according to Media By Numbers. Predictions for the three-day debut of "Ratatouille" vary widely from $50 million to $65 million.

But industry and Wall Street analysts said the film could perform well in the long run if it could appeal to families and stay in theaters longer, giving it "legs" at the box office.

Growing Sentiment

SMH Capital analyst David Miller sees the opening weekend of "Ratatouille" slightly surpassing "Cars," with a $65 million debut and an ultimate global box office take of $572 million.

"For the CGI (computer-generated image) animated films, we are not going to place as much emphasis (on the debut) as the global ultimates," Miller said. "Our research shows that families of kids will skip the opening weekend," Miller said.

Deutsche Bank analyst Doug Mitchelson forecast an opening "lower than recent Pixar films" at about $50 million, but said strong reviews could boost its domestic box office take above $200 million.

Online ticketing site Fandango.com said "Ratatouille" accounted for 15 percent of all ticket sales Friday, lagging "Live Free or Die Hard" at 37 percent. But MovieTickets.com showed the film with 13 times the advance sales of the animated "Surf's Up," which debuted at $17.6 million earlier this month.

Critics have almost universally praised the film, calling it "a high-water mark for everyone at Pixar" and "so advanced, so sophisticated, it doesn't feel like it was made for kids."

"Ratatouille" was directed by Brad Bird, maker of critical hit "The Iron Giant" and Pixar's "The Incredibles."

Shares of Disney were trading up 22 cents or 0.65 percent at $34.07 on the New York Stock Exchange, but in a sign ofgrowing enthusiasm as the movie has reached theaters, U.S. options trading in Disney shares was brisk.

In the U.S. options market, traders and analysts cited strong buying in Disney calls, notably ones giving investors the right to buy Disney shares at $35 and $37.50 by mid-August.

In late afternoon trading, 26,909 calls versus 6,426 puts had traded in Disney, more than five times regular volume, according to market research firm Track Data.

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