LOS ANGELES - The gang from "The Matrix" got a lesson in virtual reality, Hollywood style, from a cartoon fish and a jaunty pirate in a year that left many sequels to tried-and-true franchises trailing in the wake of original movies.
"Finding Nemo" floated to the top of the box office with $340 million domestically, while "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" sailed close behind at $305 million.
The question seems to be how long "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" will take to pass "Nemo" as the top-grossing film released in 2003. "Return of the King," the final chapter in the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, has raced past $224 million in less than two weeks at theaters.
Overall, Hollywood revenues lagged most of the year. Ticket prices were up about 3.97 percent while total earnings fell 0.45 percent from 2002, the first downturn since 1991, according to box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.
Total attendance was down 4.25 percent.
Movies in 2003 collected an estimated total of $9.275 billion, compared to the 2002 total of $9.317 billion.
"The Matrix" saga charged out of the gate last spring with a huge opening weekend for "The Matrix Reloaded," which rang up an impressive $281.5 million total, $114 million more than the Wachowski brothers' groundbreaking 1999 original.
But disappointment quickly sank in as "Matrix Reloaded" left many fans cold. The final chapter, "The Matrix Revolutions," opened in November to far weaker numbers and is limping toward $140 million, the lowest gross of the three movies.
Meantime, Pixar and Disney, makers of the "Toy Story" flicks and "Monsters, Inc.," hit it big with "Finding Nemo," the sweet animated tale of a father fish's quest to rescue his son from a dentist's aquarium.
Then Disney struck again with Johnny Depp's turn as a loopy buccaneer in "Pirates of the Caribbean," based on the studio's theme-park attraction.
With other hits that included "Bringing Down the House" and "Freaky Friday," Disney was the box-office leader with $1.52 billion, the second-best domestic performance ever by a single studio behind Sony's record $1.6 billion a year earlier.
"Nemo" and "Pirates" had flown in under the radar of higher-profile sequels that wound up underachieving at the box office, among them "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "2 Fast 2 Furious" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life."
"Our whole emphasis was trying to be counter to all of the sequels that were being released," said Chuck Viane, Disney head of distribution. "We basically looked at the year and said this would be a great time for new programming."
The one sequel that delivered in a gigantic way was "Return of the King." The film could become the second to top $1 billion in global receipts, after "Titanic" ($1.8 billion).
Director Peter Jackson labored for seven years on "Lord of the Rings," whose first two chapters - "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" - combined to gross nearly $1.8 billion globally.
The three films, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, were shot simultaneously so distributor New Line could release them just a year apart, a short interval for Hollywood sequels.
"I think the last one represents a very emotional end for the public and the company alike," said Rolf Mittweg, New Line head of worldwide distribution and marketing.
The year produced a record 25 hits that grossed $100 million or more, surpassing the previous high of 24 in 2002. The record could climb higher depending on how well other late-2003 releases perform.
Top hits included Jim Carrey's walk on the omnipotent side "Bruce Almighty"; the mutant sequel "X2: X-Men United"; Arnold Schwarzenegger's last flick before becoming California governor, "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines"; Will Ferrell's holiday comedy "Elf"; Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson's rage farce "Anger Management"; and the classy racehorse tale "Seabiscuit."
With $111.5 million, "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" revived the gimmick of three-dimensional film in a big way.
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's crime romp "Gigli" was the year's most notorious stinker. Other flops included Harrison Ford's cop comedy "Hollywood Homicide" and the animated adventure "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas."
Eddie Murphy, who starred in three back-to-back bombs in 2002, returned to hit status with "Daddy Day Care" and managed modest grosses on "The Haunted Mansion."
"Finding Nemo" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" aside, 2003 produced fewer out-of-the-blue surprises that truly grabbed audiences the way "Signs," "Lilo & Stitch," "Ice Age," "The Ring" or the sleeper sensation "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" did in 2002.
"Here's what all these $100 million films this year tells you. The marketing teams are alive and well at studios," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "But what gives you record-breaking attendance are films that deliver, that move people, that keep bringing people back into theaters. I think this year, there just weren't as many movies like that."