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‘Frozen’ is a surprise hit at the box office

This image released by Disney shows Elsa the Snow Queen, voiced by Idina Menzel, in a scene from the animated feature "Frozen." (AP Photo/Disney,File)
This image released by Disney shows Elsa the Snow Queen, voiced by Idina Menzel, in a scene from the animated feature "Frozen." (AP Photo/Disney,File)

The holidays are a time when family-friendly films pack in audiences. But even in a season when G and PG fare comes with a built-in head start, it’s hard not to be impressed by what “Frozen” has done.

“Frozen” finished in second place at the box office this weekend, its fifth in wide release, with $28.6 million. As the numbers came in throughout the weekend, the film even challenged the more recently released — and notably hyped — “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” for the top box-office slot, and wound up finishing just $400,000 behind it despite playing in 600 fewer theaters.

“Frozen’s” total stands at nearly $250 million since it went wide in late November, a solid number in its own right.

But it’s the way the Chris Buck-Jennifer Lee film — Disney’s musical retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Snow Queen” — has reached the milestone that is surprising and unusual.

Though “Frozen” dropped out of 150 theaters this weekend compared with the previous weekend, its ticket sales surged 46 percent, nearly unheard-of in an industry in which week-to-week drops are the almost-inviolable rule.

In its own way, “Frozen” has the kind of cinematic virtues we associate with legendary films from Hollywood’s past that we don’t see much in mainstream movies — likable characters, clever dialogue, great songs and big emotional payoffs.

In the last few years, animated movies that opened in the fall with an eye toward playing through the holidays — “Puss in Boots,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” a pair of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movies,” Madagascar Escape 2 Africa” — were out of the top five by the time their fifth weekend of wide release rolled around. (None of these movies, incidentally, got near $250 million in domestic box office receipts.) Even Pixar blockbusters such as “Toy Story 3” and “Finding Nemo” couldn’t stay in the top three during their second months of release.

In fact, most wide-release films in general can’t sustain that kind of momentum. “Frozen,” then, is in the uncommon realm of general-interest, spectacle-driven phenomena such as “Gravity,” which hung on at No. 5 in its fifth week, and “Avatar,” which continued to win the weekend on its sixth and seventh weekends of release.

Some of “Frozen’s” success is due to timing — this is a propitious time of the year for animated movies, and there isn’t a lot out to feed that appetite. But big animated films have had prime weeks all to themselves before without generating the same results.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of hits in the movie business — the splashy big-budget release that catches fire pretty much the moment it comes out. And there is the word-of-mouth hit that chugs along, performing well week in and week out.

In an age when most studio releasing is about hammering the audience early and grabbing the receipts quickly, the latter is the rarer form of hit.

“Frozen” is actually the even-rarer species: the film that operates on both levels.

It’s certainly a movie that made its mark right out of the gate. It opened in wide release on Thanksgiving weekend to $67 million, just behind juggernaut “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and in fact went on to win the box office in its second weekend.

Over its first 12 days of wide release (it had played a one-theater limited engagement the week before it went wide), the film had racked up a whopping $134 million.

But it also has proved a word-of-mouth smash. Thanks to its crowd-pleasing mix of stirring action, catchy music and stunning visuals — evidenced, most clearly, by its A-plus CinemaScore — the film has brought out audiences even after the weeks and new competing movies (there were half a dozen in the last few days alone) have piled up.

At its current rate, it looks as if the film could approach $300 million in domestic receipts. (It recently crossed half a billion in worldwide dollars.) That would make it the fourth-biggest U.S. hit of the year and mean that two of the top four movies of 2013 were animated films (with “Despicable Me 2”).

That’s a feat that hasn’t happened since 2001.

But it’s the kind of long-running phenomenon that “Frozen” represents that feels especially long in coming.

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