Disney has put a rodent on top of the box office, though not the studio's venerable mascot, Mickey Mouse.
"Ratatouille," an animated comedy about a gourmet rat that gets a chance to cook in a French restaurant, debuted as the No. 1 weekend movie with $47.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
20th Century Fox's action thriller "Live Free or Die Hard," Bruce Willis's return as unstoppable cop John McClane, opened in second-place with $33.15 million. Since opening Wednesday, the movie has grossed $48.2 million.
In narrower release, Michael Moore's health-care documentary "Sicko," released by the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate, took in $4.5 million in its nationwide debut to finish at No. 9. The movie opened in one New York City theater a week earlier.
Focus Features' family drama "Evening," with an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close and Claire Danes, opened at No. 10 with $3.5 million.
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, Universal's "Evan Almighty," fell to No. 3 with $15.1 million, raising its 10-day total to $60.6 million. The movie's sharp 52 percent fall from opening weekend dims the studio's prospects for recouping the enormous $175 million production budget for "Evan Almighty."
While "Ratatouille" easily dominated the weekend, it had the smallest debut among releases by Disney's Pixar Animation unit since 1998's "A Bug's Life," which opened with $33.3 million. The other five Pixar films since then, among them "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo" and last year's "Cars," had opening weekends between $57.4 million and $70.5 million.
Chuck Viane, Disney's head of distribution, said "Ratatouille" was up against more competition than past Pixar flicks. With sparkling reviews for "Ratatouille," Disney is counting on the staying power at theaters that other Pixar films have had.
"Our whole idea was to set ourselves up for what we call the 10-day opening," Viane said of the upcoming Fourth of July week. "We look at this as one extended playtime. We're in this for the long haul. We're glad we're No. 1, but we're not trying to make this just a weekend wonder."
Willis returned to the "Die Hard" franchise after a 12-year absence, and as Sylvester Stallone did last year with "Rocky Balboa," he proved that an aging action hero still could pack theaters.
"John McClane is every man. He's a hero, but he's thrust into situations, and I think people love that," said Bert Livingston, general sales manager for Fox. "He's clever, he's funny and he gets the job done."
"Sicko," Moore's dissection of the ills of U.S. health-care, played in 441 theaters, about half the number for his last movie, 2004's $100 million hit "Fahrenheit 9/11." With a $23.9 million opening, "Fahrenheit 9/11" did five times as much business, though.
Still, "Sicko" had the second-best documentary debut ever behind "Fahrenheit 9/11." By comparison, "Ratatouille" opened in nearly 4,000 theaters, about nine times as many as "Sicko."
Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., said he wanted to roll "Sicko" out slowly to give it a longer shelf life and keep Moore's stand for universal health-care on the front burner.
"The idea is to hold during the summer and just continue to build this thing," Weinstein said. "I just think the debate in this country is going to catch up with the movie, so we've got to keep it slow."
Weinstein and Moore said they hoped "Sicko" would do in the range of the $21.6 million total for the filmmaker's 2002 Academy Award winner "Bowling for Columbine."
If Sunday estimates hold, Hollywood's overall revenues will be up slightly, snapping a four-week downturn that has surprised analysts who had expected the industry to do record business this summer. The top-12 movies took in $146.7 million, up 2 percent from the same weekend last year.
"For now, I'm glad we broke the down streak," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "Four down weekends turns into five, which turns into eight, and then we have a slump on our hands. We didn't want to go in that direction."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Ratatouille," $47.2 million.
2. "Live Free or Die Hard," $33.15 million.
3. "Evan Almighty," $15.1 million.
4. "1408," $10.6 million.
5. "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," $9 million.
6. "Knocked Up," $7.4 million.
7. "Ocean's Thirteen," $6.05 million.
8. "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," $5 million.
9. "Sicko," $4.5 million.
10. "Evening," $3.5 million.