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By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES, June 29 Animation giant Pixar scored its ninth consecutive No. 1 on Sunday with its robot love story "WALL-E," while Angelina Jolie achieved a personal best with her violent assassination thriller "Wanted."
"WALL-E," bolstered by near-unanimous critical praise, sold an estimated $62.5 million of tickets in its first three days, said Pixar's Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) parent.
It tied with 2001's "Monsters, Inc." to become Pixar's third-best opener. Pixar has gone to No. 1 with all nine of its movies, an unprecedented run that begin in 1995 with "Toy Story."
The company record of $70.5 million was set in 2004 by "The Incredibles." Industry pundits had forecast an opening for "WALL-E" in the $50 million to $60 million range.
"Anything north of 60 (million dollars), we were going to be ecstatic," said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group.
Meanwhile Jolie, whose career has been overshadowed in recent years by breathless tabloid coverage of her personal life, kicked off at No. 2 with "Wanted." The Universal Pictures release earned about $51.1 million, easily beating forecasts of an opening in the mid- to high-$30 million range.
Her previous record for a live-action movie was 2005's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which opened to $50 million. The General Electric Co (GE.N)-owned studio said "Wanted" ranks as the third-highest opening for an R-rated action film, behind "The Matrix Reloaded ($91.7 million) and "300" ($70.9 million).
"WALL-E" and "Wanted," clearly aimed at disparate audiences, helped pushed overall sales to their highest level of the year, said tracking firm Media By Numbers. The top 12 films grossed $179 million, up 29 percent from last weekend, and up 20 percent from the year-ago period, when Pixar's "Ratatouille" opened at No. 1 with $47 million on its way to $206 million.
Last weekend's champion, the Warner Bros spy comedy "Get Smart," slipped to No. 3 with $20 million, taking its 10-day haul to $77.3 million. The film, which stars Steve Carell as the inept hero Maxwell Smart, should finish up with about $130 million, said the Time Warner Inc (TWX.N)-owned studio.
Rounding out the top five, Pixar rival DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc's DWA.N "Kung Fu Panda" slipped one to No. 4 with $11.7 million, taking its total to $179.3 million. The film opened four weeks ago to $60.2 million.
Marvel Entertainment Inc's MVL.N "The Incredible Hulk" fell three to No. 5 with $9.2 million. The superhero adaptation has earned $115.5 million after three weeks, roughly on par with its unloved 2003 predecessor "The Hulk."
"WALL-E," a space adventure mixing an unusual love story with somber messages about the future of Earth and humankind, was directed by Andrew Stanton, who won an Academy Award for Pixar's 2003 hit "Finding Nemo."
The title character, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, is the last of a cadre of robots tasked with cleaning up piles of trash discarded by humans who abandoned the planet centuries before.
The human race set off on a luxury space cruise during a planned five-year clean-up that lasts much longer and results in unfortunate changes in the human physique and psyche.
The arrival of a sleek girl robot named Eve, sent to Earth by the orbiting humans to look for plant life, sends Wall-E on an adventure that changes his own and humanity's destinies.
Critics heaped praise on the film. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a Web site that collects reviews, an astonishing 96 percent of critics liked the film.
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune said on TV's "Ebert & Roeper" that it was perhaps "the best American studio picture of the year," but the Hollywood Reporter said "it might be too clever to connect with mainstream audiences."
Disney's Zoradi said "WALL-E" was not a conventional cartoon, but the studio was "confident from the get-go" that it would work. He declined to reveal the film's budget, in line with Disney's policy.
"WALL-E" also opened at No. 1 in six small foreign markets, led by Brazil with $1.6 million, Zoradi said. It will reach Russia and Mexico next weekend, followed by the U.K. in mid-July, timed with the school holidays in each market.
"Wanted," a $74 million comic book adaptation directed by Kazakhstan-born filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, stars Scottish actor James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland") as an office drone recruited to an elite order of assassins by Jolie and Morgan Freeman. Critics were also enthused. (Reporting by Dean Goodman and Gina Keating; Editing by Vicki Allen)