The animated film from 20th Century Fox is the fourth in the "Ice Age" series and the first in 3-D. The North America performance of "Continental Drift" was on par with previous "Ice Age" movies but well below the opening weekend of the second installment, "The Meltdown," which opened with $68 million in 2006.
There has now been a decade of "Ice Age" films, allowing the characters voiced by Ray Romano, Queen Latifah and John Leguizamo to become increasingly familiar to audiences, particularly international ones. The film had already done robust overseas business ahead of opening in the U.S. This weekend it earned $95 million internationally, bringing its overseas total to $339 million.
"Scrat rules the world," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for Fox, referring to the films' rat-squirrel mascot, whose wordless, futile pursuit of a nut is a mainstay of the movies.
The "Ice Age" franchise has now surpassed $2.2 billion worldwide, and the studio expects "Continental Drift" to equal the global total of the last installment, 2009's "Dawn of the Dinosaurs," which took in $886.7 million.
"There's really not very many animated franchises that have had three sequels," said Aronson. "The performance of 'Ice Age' has been remarkably consistent."
The weekend was inevitably shadowed by two superheroes, coming a week after the debut of Sony's Spider-Man reboot, "The Amazing Spider-Man," and one week before the highly-anticipated Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight Rises."
In its second week of release, "Spider-Man" earned $35 million, pushing it past $200 million domestically. It earned nearly $67 million overseas over the weekend, bringing its worldwide gross is now $521.4 million.
Seth MacFarlane's R-rated comedy hit, "Ted," which stars Mark Wahlberg and a talking teddy bear, added $22.1 million in its third week for a total of $159 million for Universal Pictures.
But the weekend belonged to family films, which had three of the top 10 films at the box office.
"Ice Age" is the third animated blockbuster to debut at No. 1 this summer, and the previous mega-cartoons - Pixar Animation's "Brave" and DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" - also padded their totals. In fourth place, "Brave" added $10.7 million to its $195.6 million domestic total, and the 10th place "Madagascar 3" added $3.5 million to its $203.7 million domestic total.
"This shows how incredibly important the family audience is, particularly in the summer when families are looking for entertainment that's appropriate for the kids and the parents as well," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "You've got three family films that all performed incredibly well and each weekend topped the box office."
The weekend business was, as expected, below the corresponding weekend last year, when the final Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," set what was then a box office record of $169.2 million.
"The Avengers" earlier this year opened bigger than "Deathly Hallows," but that record could well be tested by Christopher Nolan's third Batman film come next weekend.
"This is the calm before the storm that is 'The Dark Knight,'" said Dergarabedian.
1. "Ice Age: Continental Drift," $46 million ($95 million internationally)
2. "The Amazing Spider-Man," $35 million ($66.6 million)
3. "Ted," $22.1 million.
4. "Brave," $10.7 million.
5. "Magic Mike," $9 million.
6. "Savages," $8.7 million.
7. "Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection," $5.6 million.
8. "Katy Perry: Part of Me," $3.7 million.
9. "Moonrise Kingdom," $3.7 million.
10. "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," $3.5 million.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.