By Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After mining the worlds of fairy tales, zoos, dragons and martial arts pandas, DreamWorks Animation is going back to the Stone Age with "The Croods," in the hope of finding a new box office hit.
"The Croods," out in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, is being watched closely by analysts after the weak performance of "Rise of the Guardians" last year, which led DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc to write down about $87 million in costs.
"The Croods" follows a family of cavemen as they fight for survival in a mysterious and visually stunning new world that is constantly changing under their feet.
Croods patriarch Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) has to come to terms with daughter Eep (Emma Stone) growing older and falling in love with the more evolved Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who poses the threat of change for stubborn Grug.
"It's not the meteors or lava or mammoths falling through cracks in the ground. It's his daughter changing in front of his eyes and leaving with a man that she sees eye-to-eye with, and that we saw as really resonating with people," said Kirk De Micco, who co-directed "The Croods" with Chris Sanders.
DreamWorks has enjoyed huge success with its "Shrek," "Madagascar," and "Kung Fu Panda" franchises.
However, financial losses from last year's "Guardians," a movie that united Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and other childhood icons, didn't draw in big crowds and contributed to a decision to lay off 350 employees, DreamWorks said last month.
Sanders joked that they felt "no pressure at all" ahead of the release of "The Croods," saying that DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had been supportive.
"One of the nice things that Jeffrey brings to the party is he never loses sight that we're making a feature film ... he'll never try to change the course of the film," Sanders told Reuters.
Box office forecasters project a bright weekend debut for "Croods" of $38 million and $45 million in the U.S. and Canada.
"I think if they are doing $40 million, people are pretty comfortable," said analyst Barton Crockett, who follows DreamWorks at Lazard Capital Markets.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
De Micco and Sanders set about creating a vivid 3-D backdrop of the changing prehistoric landscape, with exotic mythical creatures, drawing inspiration from the Cretaceous era in Earth's evolutionary history.
"We wanted the audience to go on the very same journey that the characters are going on. At every turn, no one, including in the audience, knows what's going to be around that next corner, so it kept everyone on their toes," Sanders said.
A furry sloth named Belt, voiced by Sanders, is a scene-stealer with his prophetic "duh-duh-dun" phrase at tense moments. Sanders said his character provides "terrific comedy relief."
Sanders and De Micco worked with animators to create 39 original animals for the film. Twenty-one will be featured in the move and all 39 appear in a "Croods" video game released by Angry Birds creators Rovio last week.
If it hits projections, the film's opening will fall between "Guardians" limp $24 million first weekend and June blockbuster "Madagascar 3" that debuted with $60 million.
Film distributor 20th Century Fox, a division of News Corp., expects weekend sales to hit $40 million, with solid business in the following weeks as schools take a break around the Easter holiday.
"We are the first animated film (this year) in quite some time, and then we will be the only animated film for quite some time. We are going to play and play and play," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for Fox.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine; editing by Jill Serjeant and Stacey Joyce)