Circus animals and space beasts have lifted Hollywood to a huge weekend.
The cuddly critters of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted led the weekend with a $US60.4 million ($A61.25 million) debut domestically, followed by a big opening for Ridley Scott's alien saga Prometheus at number two with $US50 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar 3 was the family favourite for the weekend, reuniting voice stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer as the zoo animals continue their travels by joining a circus.
Madagascar 3 outdid the $US47.2 million debut of the 2005 original, though it came in behind the $US63.1 million opening of the first sequel, 2008's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Europe's Most Wanted had the added benefit of today's higher ticket prices and a bump from fans who caught 3-D shows, which cost a few dollars more than 2-D screenings.
Still, fans remain loyal to the franchise, and Madagascar 3 received generally better reviews than the previous two installments.
"It's the beloved characters and their comic adventures. And Madagascar 3 is critically the best-reviewed of the franchise. Both audiences and critics really love this one the most," said Anne Globe, head of marketing for DreamWorks Animation.
Madagascar 3 also took in $US75.5 million internationally for a worldwide debut of $US135.9 million.
Prometheus, from 20th Century Fox, stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron in an offshoot of director's Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror tale Alien. Prometheus did big business despite an R rating, which can limit a movie's audience since fans under 17 must see it with an adult.
Conventional wisdom is that action films should come in with a PG-13 rating to cast the widest net possible for its audience.
"A $US50 million weekend disproves that rule, for sure," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox. "This movie is so special. It's visually stunning, great storytelling as Ridley is known for. It's Ridley Scott's vision. I'm an unabashed fan of the movie, and the performance at the box office bears that out."
The movie added $US39.2 million overseas, bringing its international total to $US91.5 million and its worldwide take to $US141.5 million since it began rolling out in some markets a week earlier.
The one-two punch of Madagascar 3 and Prometheus lifted Hollywood out of an early dip in summer-season revenue. After three-straight weekends of declining receipts, domestic business totaled $US177 million, up 29 per cent from the same weekend last year, when Super 8 led with $US35.5 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
"It has to do with the variety of movies in the marketplace," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "This is a perfectly programd summer weekend with a PG-rated animated family film combined with an R-rated, intense sci-fi movie."
The previous weekend's top draw, Universal's Snow White & the Huntsman, slipped to third-place with $US23 million, raising its domestic total to $US98.5 million.
Sony's Men in Black 3 finished fourth with $US13.5 million, putting its domestic receipts at $US135.5 million.
The superhero smash The Avengers, from Disney's Marvel Studios, was number five with $US10.8 million, lifting its domestic total to $US571.9 million. The year's top-grossing film, The Avengers added $US7.8 million overseas, raising its international haul to $US824.4 million and its worldwide revenue to just under $US1.4 billion.
Lionsgate's The Hunger Games, number two on this year's box-office chart, took in $US1.1 million to cross the $US400 million mark. Its domestic total stands at $US400.3 million, and the film has taken in nearly $US650 million worldwide.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at US and Canadian theatres, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, $US60.4 million ($US75.5 million).
2. Prometheus, $US50 million ($US39.2 million international).
3. Snow White & the Huntsman, $US23 million ($US24.6 million international).
4. Men in Black 3, $US13.5 million ($US38.3 million international).
5. The Avengers, $US10.8 million ($US7.8 million international).
6. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, $US3.2 million.
7. What to Expect When You're Expecting, $US2.7 million.
8. Battleship, $US2.3 million.
9. The Dictator, $US2.2 million ($US4.9 million international).
10. Moonrise Kingdom, $US1.6 million.