LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If it's the second weekend in November, it must be Christmas in Hollywood.
Walt Disney Co's high-tech adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" topped the North American box office on Sunday with lower-than-expected ticket sales of $31 million.
For moviegoers in the mood for darker material, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," opened at No. 13 after earning a hefty $1.8 million in just four cities. Lionsgate's acclaimed tale of a young, black, overweight, illiterate incest survivor will expand nationally on November 20.
Both movies overshadowed new releases featuring such big names as George Clooney and Cameron Diaz. Clooney's military comedy "The Men Who Stare At Goats" opened at No. 3 with a solid $13.3 million. "The Box," a thriller starring Diaz, opened at No. 6 with just $7.9 million. Also new was the alien-abduction thriller "The Fourth Kind" at No. 4 with $12.5 million.
Last weekend's champion, the Michael Jackson concert documentary "This is It" slipped to No. 2 with $14 million, taking its 12-day total to $57.9 million. The foreign total for the Columbia Pictures release rose to $128.6 million.
Industry pundits had forecast a three-day haul in the $35 million-$45 million range for "A Christmas Carol," a motion-capture animated fable featuring the likeness of Jim Carrey. The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, and received negative reviews from top critics.
But Disney said the opening hit its own target, and it expected the movie to enjoy some longevity once the Christmas spirit kicks in. This was the case with Zemeckis' 2004 holiday movie "The Polar Express," which totaled $180 million after a slow start.
"You know you're in for a marathon rather than a dash," said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic theatrical distribution.
"Polar Express" also used motion-capture technology, as did Zemeckis' 2007 epic "Beowulf," which stalled at $82 million domestically. Disney said 3D theaters, which charge a premium for tickets, accounted for nearly three-quarters of "Christmas Carol" sales.
Carrey's likeness is used for both Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Also on board are Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.
"A Christmas Carol" also earned $12 million from 18 international markets, led by Britain and Mexico. Disney does not disclose budgets, but various reports have said the price tag was at least $175 million.
"The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "The Box" also met the modest expectations of their respective distributors, Overture Films and Warner Bros., while Universal Pictures' "The Fourth Kind" did a bit better. Top critics were dismissive of all.
On the other hand, virtually everyone has swooned over "Precious," which stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as the ill-starred title character. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have signed on as executive producers and cheerleaders of the film.
The tear-jerking drama debuted in 18 theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, playing to a mix of art-house and urban crowds. It will add five markets next week.
Lionsgate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp, said it hoped positive word of mouth and glowing reviews would help the studio overcome the difficulty of getting such challenging material into the mainstream.
Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp. Overture Films is a unit of Liberty Media Corp. Universal Pictures is a unit of General Electric Co. Warner Bros is a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Eric Walsh