The new Harry Potter movie drew lukewarm reviews on Tuesday, but millions of "muggles" are expected to ignore the critics and turn out in droves for the widest release ever for Warner Bros studio.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film in the series based on the best-selling novels about a British boy wizard, opens on Wednesday in 4,285 US and Canadian theaters and in 44 markets around the world. The studio is shipping out 22,000 copies globally, Warner Bros said on Tuesday.
The widest US and Canadian release was 4,362 theaters for Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
For Warner Bros, Phoenix nearly double its previous wide release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 24 markets. Along with strong fan interest, the theater count should drive strong ticket sales for a Potter movie, box office watchers said.
In total, the first four Potter movies raked in $3.5 billion in theaters, starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001.
Online ticket seller Fandango.com said advance sales for Phoenix were outpacing earlier summer hits Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and hundreds of debut screenings set for midnight Tuesday were sold out.
"These Potter movies are a phenomenon, not only in the US but worldwide, and I fully expect this film will live up to the box office success of its predecessors," said Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Media By Numbers.
That is good news for Warner Bros, a unit of Time Warner Inc, which makes and markets the Potter films, because so far major critics have been less than joyous.
<b1>Harry on Defense
Phoenix finds Harry, portrayed again by Daniel Radcliffe, having to defend his use of magic in his recent confrontation with the evil Lord Voldemort, while his protector, Professor Dumbledore, is strangely distant.
The New York Times said, "Although (it) is not a great movie, it is a pretty good one." And The Los Angeles Times called it "no more than a way station in an epic journey," referring to the fact a total of seven films are planned.
In London, The Times newspaper gave Phoenix three stars out of five after its Tokyo premiere and said, "It is a film where the balance of narrative tips from action to intrigue, and there are some that will find that tedious."
To be fair, Web site rottentomatoes.com, which compiles reviews, gives the movie a 74 percent favorable rating. Box office watchers call the Potter movies "review-proof" because their legions of fans and other muggles -- the term for normal humans in the wizard world -- typically ignore critics.
The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, grossed $976 million worldwide in 2001, and four years later, the box office for the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, slipped only 8 per cent to $892 million.
The latest Harry Potter adventure to hit the big screen comes less than two weeks before the July 21 release of the seventh and final book in JK Rowling's series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.