- - Thursday, December 14, 2017

Movies based on best-selling books are by no means a sure thing. Just ask Stephen King.

The film adaptation of his killer-clown novel “It” has raked in $327 million, while the long-delayed film version of his epic yarn “The Dark Tower” has earned a tepid $50 million.

So box office expectations for “Wonder,” based on a best-selling children’s novel by R.J. Palacio, were modest at best. It didn’t help that the movie’s release date — Nov. 17 — came during the heart of the competitive Oscar film season. Or that the film’s biggest star, Julia Roberts, is no longer the A-list attraction she was in her “Pretty Woman” days.

Audiences have flocked to “Wonder” all the same, and they have told their friends and neighbors, apparently.

The heart-tugging story follows Auggie, a child born with a severe facial deformity. He is leaving his home-schooling days behind for a private school, where his parents fear his appearance might make him an easy target for bullying and ridicule.

They’re right, but Auggie’s unyielding charm may be a match for the bullies.

The family-friendly film took a bite out of the much-hyped “Justice League” debut by snaring $27.5 million on its opening weekend. In week two, “Wonder” earned $22 million, a small drop compared with most wide releases.

The PG-rated movie cracked the coveted $100 million barrier at the U.S. box office this week, with a modest $20 million budget.

Betsy Bozdech, executive editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes child-friendly technology and media, says the book’s good standing with parents and teachers certainly helped at the box office. The film’s unique tone may have done the rest.

“It’s not a teen book that’s too racy for tweens. It’s actually about tweens, with themes and plots appropriate for them,” said Ms. Bozdech, adding that the book market does a much better job than the film industry of entertaining that demographic.

“Ten- to 12-year-olds want to see themselves on screen, too,” she said.

Suzy Sammons, CEO of the Dove Foundation, which reviews and endorses movies suitable for the entire family, wasn’t surprised by “Wonder“‘s success.

“There’s so much junk flying around the media right now,” said Ms. Sammons, adding that a film with the strong values, tight craftsmanship and the star power of “Wonder” was bound to succeed. “It’s a story of triumph, loyalty … things we need so much now.”

Ms. Sammons compares the film’s achievement to another “Wonder”-ful 2017 release.

“‘Wonder Woman’ tapped into that integrity, that inner strength, forsaking things that are so superficial in value,” she said. “That’s what ‘Wonder’ does, too.”

Film critic and movie podcaster Tyler Smith said “Wonder“‘s release date proved fortuitous despite fierce competition from “Justice League,” the Denzel Washington lawyer drama “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and “The Star,” a small-budget, animated retelling of the Nativity from the animals’ perspective that has earned a surprising $33 million domestically. All of the films opened Nov. 17.

Had “Wonder” hit cineplexes in the heart of the summer, it would have been swamped by noisy blockbusters such as “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Mr. Smith said.

“But in the fall and winter, which is the season for more straightforward dramas … there’s a little bit more room for a film like this to catch people’s attention,” Mr. Smith said.

The story’s sense of familiarity helped secure that precious word-of-mouth power after a strong opening weekend, he said.

“It’s just the story of a family trying to make it through life, something that many adults can relate to,” he said.

Grown-up movies are falling out of favor in franchise-heavy Hollywood, but there is always room for a few to slip through the blockbuster cracks, he said. Consider last year’s “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land,” both of which soared past $100 million without superheroes, car crashes or other tricks of computer-generated imagery.

“Wonder” also connects with a demographic rarely targeted by the film industry: mothers.

“It’s a movie that moms would like to see. And there are precious few of those in theaters,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Bozdech suggests Hollywood consider the lessons from “Wonder“‘s box office victory lap.

“There’s an audience out there for well-made movies that take kids and their concerns and interests seriously,” she said. “It doesn’t all have to be another story about a kid who doesn’t look like everyone else.”


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