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The Witch vs 'The West': The box office battle no one is talking about

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With the continued back and forth between Warner Bros and Marvel Studios (which is owned by Disney) about who will blink first over the now-coveted May 6, 2016 release date, box office battles have become the topic du jour again. While it's still highly unlikely we'll see Captain America 3 battle the tentatively titled Batman vs Superman, it still has box office analysts and fans of both franchises eager to discuss what could happen, and who will come out on top.

Admittedly, it was doing some research on this topic that caused me to find an actual box office battle that, somehow, no one is talking about. The best part? It's happening in about a month from now!

On May 30 of this year, we'll see two potential box office juggernauts go head-to-head: Disney's Maleficent and Universal's A Million Ways to Die in the West. It goes without saying that these are two vastly different films, targeting different audiences. Maleficent, naturally, is a re-imagining of the classic villain from Sleeping Beauty, while Million Ways is the latest R-rated comedy from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. However, this doesn't change the fact that this has all the makings of a huge battle at the box office. Let's look at each film individually...

In the one corner, we have Maleficent. Disney has more often than not ruled the roost at the box office, offering films that not only appeal to a wide variety of audiences, but also rake in the big bucks as well. One only needs to look at last year's Frozen, which quickly became a surprise hit, earning over $1 billion worldwide. Even though Maleficent isn't animated, it doesn't matter. In 2009, Alice In Wonderland, a dark re-imagining of the classic Lewis Carroll tale, earned over $1 billion worldwide as well, earning it a sequel Through the Looking Glass, which comes out in the next few years.

Maleficent has a bit going for it as well. Not only is there good will from the brand, but casting Angelina Jolie as the titular character was one of the best decisions the producers could have made, and the trailers look phenomenal. However, that's really all the film has going for it. While Disney has made a killing off their animated films of late, their live-action films have had many missteps along the way. Barring the inevitable mention of The Lone Ranger giving up the ghost at the box office last July, a more relevant example would be last year's Oz the Great and Powerful. Oz was another dark retelling of a beloved classic that promised to be a huge moneymaker for Disney. This clearly was not the case. While Wonderland had Tim Burton in the director's chair and boasted a cast of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman, Oz had Sam Raimi at the helm, directing James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz. Not entirely apples to apples.

The tone of the film also seemed to give many pause as well. While Wonderland was already a dark book, it wasn't exactly a stretch to make it a dark film. The problem is that, while L. Frank Baum's original book was a bit dark, that's not the memories audiences had with Victor Fleming's popular adaptation, nor with the musical Wicked, an adaptation of Gregory Maguire's book about the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West. While many will argue that the musical is nowhere near the bleak, violent origins of Maguire's book, it's still far lighter in tone than Raimi's Oz. All these caused Oz to make less than half of what Wonderland earned at the world wide box office (roughly $493 million).

Maleficent's dark tone at least make sense, given the nature of the character, but it doesn't have the benefit of a name director (Robert Stromberg, a visual effects director making his directorial debut) nor does it have a widely recognizable supporting cast (featuring Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copely, and Imelda Staunton). Despite the fact the film looks amazing, given Disney's live-action record, many audiences may have a wait-and-see attitude, which could adversely affect the figures.

In the other corner, we have A Million Ways to Die in the West. R-rated comedies have had a distinct presence at the box office in the last five years, thanks to films like The Hangover, The Heat, and Bridesmaids (the latter also being released by Universal). Because of this fact, it should give the film a little more confidence it could succeed. However, last year changed quite a bit. The Hangover Part III, which was almost guaranteed to earn as much as the franchise's first two installments, faltered horribly when opening against Fast and Furious 6. While it could be argued that Furious 6 took a lot of the potential audience away from Hangover Part III (namely young men under the age of 25), the evidence still cannot be ignored. Furious 6 was PG-13, while Hangover Part III, like the previous installments, were rated R. During the Summer months, unless we're talking about horror films, an R-rated film will not likely beat out one with a less-intrusive rating.

In 2012, however, one such film did prevail against a more family-friendly film: Ted. Many box office analysts figured that the film would come up short against Disney/Pixar's Brave in its second weekend, along with the women-friendly event film Magic Mike. On the contrary, Ted bested both films by a wide margin, going on to gross over $549 million worldwide – notably more than Oz the Great and Powerful.

Seth MacFarlane, while not exactly having a track record at the box office, proved something with Ted that many box office analysts had talked about for close to a decade now since the box office slump of 2005: audiences yearn for original content. While the film's plot, at its core, may not be original (a child's toy coming to life), Ted gave an original take on the popular topic – what happens when the child's toy and its child owner grow up together. As MacFarlane took over directing duties while co-writing the film and voicing the foul-mouthed titular character, stars Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg helped elevate this unexpected comedy to new heights.

The problem is that A Million Ways isn't Ted, and that makes the film a bit of a wild card. MacFarlane's new comedy doesn't have the same schtick that Ted had, which means that similar grosses cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, this is the first live action film that MacFarlane has starred in where he's not voicing a character since he appeared as himself in the ill-fated Movie 43, so his star power is not exactly something Universal can bank on. The good news, however, is that MacFarlane doesn't need to go the course alone. Boasting a cast that includes Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Charlize Theron, and Liam Neeson, A Million Ways to Die in the West certainly has one of the best casts of any movie this year alone, and putting them in a western comedy should become quite the spectacle.

But read that sentence again. Western comedy? Has there even been a successful western comedy since 2003's Shanghai Knights (the sequel to the equally successful Shanghai Noon)? Worse yet, has there even been a western comedy since Shanghai Knights? Over a decade after modern audiences were introduced to this abnormal genre, and now we're getting another film within it. To further exasperate the situation, A Million Ways doesn't have the buddy comedy feel that the teaming of Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan gave (or Ted, for that matter), and the graphic violence shown in the red band trailer may be a further deterrent. Granted, The Hangover and its first sequel were quite violent in their own rights, featuring severed fingers, gun fights, and other bloody activities, and those films went to become two of the highest-grossing R-rated comedies of all time. So, we're back to the film being a wild card.

Given that Ted was only two years ago, and still fresh in audiences' minds, the goodwill from Ted could very well elevate A Million Ways to Die in the West over Maleficent. Obviously it wouldn't be the first time Seth MacFarlane had beaten Disney, so it could even the odds a bit. However, Maleficent has the rating angle over Million Ways, and the fact that Summer usually means families are looking to go to group movie outings could be all it takes to edge past it.

In either event, it will be interesting to see which film comes up on top next month.

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