LOS ANGELES Simba the lion may rule the jungle, but he couldn't beat a plucky dolphin at the weekend box office.
Family film "Dolphin Tale" made a surprising leap to first place with a projected $14.2 million in domestic ticket sales over three days, studio estimates released on Sunday showed.
The movie about an injured dolphin rehabilitated with a prosthetic tail, which finished third last week, knocked "The Lion King 3D" from the box office throne it held the past two weekends. "Lion King" dropped to third with $11.1 million.
In between the animal-themed family films was "Moneyball," a baseball drama starring Brad Pitt as a general manager who fields a small-budget team of unlikely contenders. The film finished in second place with $12.5 million at North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters.
All three holdover films outranked four newcomers, showing the appeal in recent weeks of feel-good movies over heavier-themed films.
The fall movie season, typically a time for more serious films, has "seen a shift to the more upbeat and even inspirational films and family fare," said Paul Dergarabedian, who heads up Hollywood.com Box Office.
"Dolphin Tale" has gained on strong word-of-mouth buzz after rave reviews from critics and moviegoers, said Andrew Kosove, co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment, the studio that produced the film. The movie is one of just a few this year to earn an A+ rating from audiences polled by survey firm CinemaScore.
"The Lion King" also has drawn filmgoers with a triumphant story despite being a 17-year-old film. The Walt Disney Co animated classic has rung up $79.7 million domestically and $19 million in international markets since it returned to theaters last month.
Combined, "Lion King" has grossed $98.7 million during its new run.
NEW RELEASES FALL BEHIND
Of four new releases this weekend, comedy "50/50" had the best showing in fourth place but still fell short of studio hopes with $8.9 million. The film is a buddy comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as a young man with cancer and Seth Rogen as his well-meaning friend. Despite the heavy topic, the movie earned an A- rating from CinemaScore. The film cost about $8 million to produce.
While the cancer theme posed a "challenge," the film's makers hope audiences in the coming weeks will focus on the relationship between the friends and how the illness is "handled with humor," said Richie Fay, president of domestic distribution for Summit Entertainment, which released the film.
In fifth place was drama "Courageous," a Christian-themed film about four police officers coping with a tragedy. The movie generated $8.8 million, beating studio forecasts of $6 million and more than earning back its production cost of $2 million. It also won an A+ from CinemaScore.
"Dream House," a new horror film, disappointed with $8.3 million to manage only sixth place for its A-list cast. It stars Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz and James Bond actor Daniel Craig. Critics bashed the movie with only 5 percent surveyed by website Rotten Tomatoes giving a positive review.
Morgan Creek, the studio that produced the film, noted the movie earned a B from audiences polled by CinemaScore.
The weekend's other new film, adult romantic comedy "What's Your Number?," floundered in eighth place with $5.6 million. In the movie, star Anna Faris revisits past relationships to see if any of her ex-boyfriends look more appealing.
Chris Aronson, senior vice president for domestic distribution at 20th Century Fox, said filmgoers gave the movie a B at CinemaScore and the film attracted a majority female crowd, the target audience.
"Dolphin Tale" was released by Warner Bros, a unit of Time Warner Inc. Privately held Summit Entertainment distributed "50/50."
"Courageous" and "Moneyball" were released by units of Sony Corp. News Corp's 20th Century Fox distributed "What's Your Number?," and "Dream House" was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; editing by Cynthia Osterman)