Though Disney's "Need for Speed'' was expected to take the No. 1 position at the box office, DreamWorks' "Mr. Peabody & Sherman'' took the lead, with the action film in third place.
The animated movie, about the adventures of a genius dog and the human son he adopted, earned $21.2 million, according to studio estimates released Sunday. Debuting last weekend at No. 2, the 3-D kiddie-jaunt features voices from "Modern Family'' stars Ty Burrell and Ariel Winter.
"Our midweek numbers were very strong, indicating good and positive word of mouth,'' said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Twentieth Century Fox. "If anything, this is exceeding (expectations). It's a combination of likable characters and it's a nostalgia play for those who are familiar with the show.''
Mr. Peabody and Sherman first appeared in the 1950s and early 1960s on "Peabody's Improbable History,'' a segment within the animated television series "Rocky and His Friends'' and later "The Bullwinkle Show.''
"The family marketplace is giving every other genre a run for its money,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "But the St. Patrick's Day effect could be at play here, where families had to exercise their options at the theater rather than the pub. That may have paid off for `Mr. Peabody.'''
Meanwhile, analysts predicted that "Need for Speed,'' based on the popular EA Entertainment video game and starring "Breaking Bad'' alum Aaron Paul, would come in at No. 1 this weekend. But with $17.8 million, it arrived at No. 3 in the U.S. But the movie raced to the top of the international box office, bringing in $45.6 million.
Warner Bros.' warrior drama "300: Rise of an Empire,'' the 3-D sequel to 2007's "300,'' dropped to second place, with $19.1 million, after debuting at No. 1 last weekend. Though its opening haul of $45.1 million pales in comparison to the original, which debuted with $70.9 million, "Rise of an Empire'' has earned more than $78 million since its debut.
Tyler Perry's "The Single Moms Club,'' starring Nia Long and Amy Smart, opened with $8.3 million at No. 5.
"This is one of Tyler Perry's lowest debuts ever, but he cranks out hits every year for almost decade,'' Dergarabedian said. "He's allowed a couple of missteps every once in a while.''
Leading the year's early trend of films about religion, Fox's "Son of God'' grossed $5.4 million in its third weekend. After opening at No. 2 with $26.5 million, it dropped to No. 5 in its second week, earning $10 million. Its performance may indicate that religious stories aren't holding up at box office. Plus "Son of God,'' starring Diogo Morgado, lacks star power.
However, other upcoming films with a biblical thread feature leading men who are more likely to get viewers to theaters. "Noah,'' out March 28, stars Russell Crowe. And later this year, in the Ridley Scott-directed "Exodus,'' we'll see Christian Bale as Moses.
Playing in only 66 theaters, Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel'' landed at No. 8 with $3.6 million. When it opened last weekend, the stylish comedy showed on just four screens in New York and Los Angeles. Still, it impressed with $200,000.
Rounding out the top 10 is the Kristen Bell-starring cult-TV-show-turned-feature "Veronica Mars.'' Its $2 million debut was impressive considering the film's funding came from a crowdsourcing campaign, the first high-profile project to do so.
Also opening this weekend was Jason Bateman's directorial debut "Bad Words.'' Showing in only New York and Los Angeles, the comedy earned $120,000, one of the biggest per theater averages of the weekend, with $20,000 per movie house.
Sci-fi action movie "Divergent,'' based on the Veronica Roth's young adult novel and starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Kate Winslet, stands to knock every other film a place or two down when it debuts next weekend.