LOS ANGELES -- Apes have climbed to the top rung of the weekend box office.
The 20th Century Fox action thriller "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" took in $54 million to open as the No. 1 movie, according to studio estimates Sunday.
That was about $15 million to $20 million more than analysts expected for the "Apes" prequel, though well below the $68.5 million opening of Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" remake 10 years ago.
Featuring James Franco, Freida Pinto and Andy Serkis, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" tells the story of how lower primates began evolving to take over Earth from humans.
The film was well received by critics, who found it a smarter-than-average summer action flick. Its impressive visual effects rely on performances from Serkis and other actors as the foundation for photo-realistic apes created by digital artists.
"I think the reviews highlight the groundbreaking nature of this movie. When you have effects that have never been seen before, people respond to that. They know they have to be seen to be believed," said Fox distribution executive Chris Aronson. "The technology is actually servicing a really good, strong, emotional story."
Sony's family tale "The Smurfs" remained at No. 2 for the second straight weekend with $21 million, lifting its domestic total to $76.2 million.
Universal's sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens," which debuted at No. 1 a week earlier, narrowly ahead of "The Smurfs," fell to third with $15.8 million, raising its total to $67.4 million.
Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman's comedy "The Change-Up," also from Universal, opened a weak No. 4 with $13.5 million. The movie centers on two old friends – a successful but frazzled attorney and family man, and a womanizing slacker – who magically trade bodies.
With $12.2 million domestically and $61.8 million overseas, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" raised its worldwide total to $1.13 billion. In the past week, it became this year's top-grossing global release, passing the $1.04 billion haul of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" added $23.4 million in 25 overseas markets, among them Russia, Spain and Australia. That gives it a worldwide total of $77.4 million, with the film expanding to more countries over the next few weeks.
The film's unexpectedly large domestic haul comes after a weekend where "Cowboys & Aliens" debuted well below projections while "The Smurfs" did far better. That resulted in a tie for the No. 1 spot the previous Sunday, with "Cowboys & Aliens" pulling slightly ahead once final weekend numbers were counted Monday.
"It just shows you it's nearly impossible to track what audiences like today," said Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for box-office tracker Hollywood.com. "It's becoming increasingly fragmented with audiences having so many other things they can do, so many options for their entertainment. It's just really hard to figure out what they want."
Overall, Hollywood has been doing something right the last month. This was the fourth-straight weekend of rising revenues, with receipts totaling $164 million, up 23 percent from the same weekend last year, when "The Other Guys" led with $35.5 million.
That has helped Hollywood continue to nibble down a revenue deficit compared with 2010's ticket sales. In the spring, 2011 domestic revenues were lagging as much as 23 percent behind last year's. But a solid summer has pushed receipts up to $6.7 billion so far this year, 4.8 percent less than 2010's income, according to Hollywood.com.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," $54 million ($23.4 million international).
2. "The Smurfs," $21 million ($45.2 million international).
3. "Cowboys & Aliens," $15.8 million.
4. "The Change-Up," $13.5 million.
5. "Captain America: The First Avenger," $13 million ($27.5 million international).
6. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," $12.2 million ($61.8 million international).
7. "Crazy, Stupid, Love," $12.1 million.
8. "Friends with Benefits," $4.7 million.
9. "Horrible Bosses," $4.6 million ($7.7 million international).
10. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," $3 million ($17.5 million international).
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.