Ice Age 4 Wins a Chilly Weekend Before The Dark Knight Rises

The prehistoric-critters toon opened so-so at home, but did thaw-some business abroad, as the shadow of Batman looms over the summer movie landscape

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Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox

Scrat and his prehistoric pals scampered into North American theaters; families followed in modest numbers. Ice Age: Continental Drift, fourth in the series of Blue Sky Studios animated features, earned $46 million, according to preliminary estimates by its distributor, 20th Century Fox, to win a sluggish box-office weekend. The total take was down nearly 40% from the same frame last year, when the Harry Potter finale opened to $169.2 million — the best first three days ever, until The Avengers seized that crown this May with $207.4 million.

Like kids who wait breathlessly for Christmas and can’t get excited when told that Dec. 21 is the winter solstice, Hollywood saw this weekend less as an Ice Age victory than as the final countdown to The Dark Knight Rises. More than The Avengers, this climax to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated movie event. Among the cinemetricians who track box-office statistics, the only question is whether the Caped Crusader from DC Comics — augmented this time by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman — will top the first-weekend bonanza rung up by the Marvel Comics’ band of superheroes.

(READ: Douglas Wolk’s love letter to Catwoman by subscribing to TIME)

The odds are long, since TDKR will be released in the plain old “flat” format — Nolan hates 3-D — and thus not benefit from the $3-4 surcharge for those annoying glasses. (Viewers will pay more to see the Bat Man in IMAX, but at far fewer theaters than can accommodate 3-D.) If the measure of a blockbuster was tickets sold, not money earned, TDKR might beat the Marvel movie. Either way, considering the rapture with which early audiences have greeted Nolan’s film, expect pandemonium at the multiplexes next weekend.

(LIST: 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Batman)

Now for the solstice stuff.

Ice Age: Continental Drift, which joins Shrek as the only major animated-feature series to reach a fourth episode, reunited the star voices of Ray Romano (as Manny the woolly mammoth), Denis Leary (as Diego the sabertooth tiger) and John Leguizamo (as Sid the sloth) — three actors who have made their mark in other media but have virtually no movie star quality. The characters and the setting are the lure for the film’s fans, who awarded it a generous A-minus rating in the CinemaScore poll of early attendees. Only 35% bothered to see the movie in 3-D, far below the usual percentage for a major cartoon. About half of the weekend audience was under the age of 25. Way under, we’re guessing.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Ice Age: Continental Drift)

An opening weekend in the mid-$40-millions means that Ice Age 4 is unlikely to challenge the domestic grosses of other recent animated features: Blue Sky’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax or DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3 or Pixar’s Brave, which are respectively the year’s third, fourth and fifth top moneymakers at home. But that’s par for the Ice Age course. None of the three previous installments, in 2002, 2006 and 2009, hit the $200-million mark in North American theaters — the threshold these days for a successful CGI cartoon.

(LIST: the all-TIME Top 25 Animated Features)

But “continental drift” is right: the Ice Age movies are monsters abroad. The first one earned $206.9 million in foreign territories, or 54% of the worldwide total; the second (The Meltdown) made $460.1 million abroad, or 70%; and the third (Dawn of the Dinosaurs) earned a walloping $690.1 million overseas — the highest foreign take of any animated film — or 78% of the global gross. Indeed, Ice Age 3 amassed a bigger haul in just three European territories (France, Germany and the U.K.) than it did in the U.S. and Canada. Continental Drift, which opened three weeks earlier abroad, has already registered a Tyrannosaurish foreign take of $339 million, more than The Hunger Games grossed over there in nearly four months. If the trend continues, Ice Age 5 will earn a billion dollars abroad and go direct to video in the U.S.

The creature feature also reclaimed the foreign title after a weekend’s domination by The Amazing Spider-Man. Back home the Spidey reboot took in $35 million for a solid second place, passing the $200-million domestic mark in just 10 days and a soaring $320.5 million abroad, where it opened in some countries a week earlier.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Amazing Spider-Man)

But Ice Age 4 wasn’t the only talking-animal movie to bring in the crowds: Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s R-rated buddy movie with Mark Wallberg and his lewd, stuffed friend, finished a strong third this weekend, with $22.1 million. Ted is already the year’s top-grossing (both senses) comedy, by far, and looks to hit $200 million in North America before it’s done.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Ted)

In indie debuts, Daniél Espinosa’s Easy Money, the Swedish crime drama starring The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman and already primed for a Hollywood remake with Zac Efron, filched $23,784 in two theaters. Trishna, with Freida Pinto headlining Michael Winterbottom’s India-set retelling of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, did about the same as Easy Money, per-screen, with $30,600 at three sites. The venerable star power of Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver couldn’t drag audiences into Red Lights: $10,011 at two theaters. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a hit at Sundance and Cannes, expanded from 19 to 81 theaters and cadged a humid $775,000. Its 19-day total stands at $1.68 million — a number that won’t threaten The Dark Knight Rises, or even Ice Age 4, but is very promising for a first feature with no professional actors. The little guys are measured by different yardsticks.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $46 million, first weekend

2. The Amazing Spider-Man,$35 million; $200.9 million, second week

3. Ted, $22.1 million; $159 million, third week

4. Brave, $10.7 million; $195.6 million, fourth week

5. Magic Mike, $9 million; $91.9 million, third week

6. Savages, $8.7 million; $31.5 million, second week

7. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection, $5.6 million; $55.6 million, third week

8. Katy Perry: Part of Me, $3.7 million; $18.6 million, second week

9. Moonrise Kingdom, $3.7 million; $32.4 million, eighth week

10. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, $3.5 million; $203.7 million, sixth week