* 'Lion King 3D' pulls in surprising $29 mln
* Virus thriller 'Contagion' falls to second
* 'Drive' speeds into third
By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES, Sept 18 (Reuters) - "The Lion King" is back on top of the movie jungle seventeen years after the film first hit theaters.
A 3D version of the 1994 Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) animated classic reclaimed the box office throne with a strong $29.3 million in domestic ticket sales over the weekend, studio estimates released on Sunday showed.
The three-day total for North American (U.S. and Canadian) theaters was more than double studio forecasts and easily pushed thriller "Contagion," last weekend's winner, to second place.
"The Lion King" is one of the most successful animated films of all time, grossing $784 million at theaters worldwide before the 3D debut. It also reigns as the top-performing home entertainment release ever. The film tells the story of a lion cub named Simba who returns from exile to claim the kingdom once led by his father.
The re-release appealed to parents and grandparents who saw the film years ago and brought their children and grandchildren to see it in a new format, said Dave Hollis, executive vice president for motion picture sales and distribution at Disney, linking it to the movie's "circle of life" theme.
"I'm very pleasantly surprised" with the opening weekend success, Hollis said, adding that Disney will consider extending the movie's run beyond the planned two-week limited engagement.
Hollis said 92 percent of filmgoers opted to see the new 3D version. Theaters also showed the film in traditional 2D. The film collected an average of $12,575 per theater in 2,330 theaters.
The movie has rung up another $12 million since the 3D version was released in international markets a month ago.
A 3D Blu-ray disc is set for release next month.
Thriller "Contagion," a Steven Soderbergh-directed film about the race to stop a deadly virus as it circles the globe, finished second with $14.5 million. The movie's sales dropped 35 percent from a week earlier and averaged $4,494 at 3,222 theaters.
Action flick "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling, performed best among other new releases. The story of a Hollywood stunt performer who drives a getaway car for criminal landed third with $11 million domestically, hitting the low end of the studio's expectations.
The film won strong reviews from critics and appealed to young males as well as "older and upscale audiences," said Bob Berney, president of theatrical distribution of FilmDistrict, which released "Drive."
Fourth place went to "The Help," a drama about the relationships between white women and black maids in civil rights-era Mississippi, with $6.4 million. The domestic tally since the critics favorite opened six weeks ago reached $147.4 million, far exceeding early expectations.
Two newcomers struggled to draw audiences.
Thriller "Straw Dogs," about a Hollywood screenwriter who finds trouble after relocating to his wife's hometown, landed in fifth place with $5 million. The remake of a 1971 movie stars James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard.
Romantic comedy "I Don't Know How She Does It," starring Sarah Jessica Parker as a multi-tasking mom juggling her family and career as a finance executive, finished sixth with a disappointing $4.5 million domestically. Many movie-going moms likely opted to bring their kids to "The Lion King" instead, said Erik Lomis, president of distribution for The Weinstein Co.
"The Help" was produced by DreamWorks and released by Disney. Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), released "Contagion." Privately held Weinstein Co. distributed "I Don't Know How She Does It." "Straw Dogs" was released by Screen Gems, a unit of Sony Corp. (SNE.N) (6758.T). (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Doina Chiacu)