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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Despicable Me," a new 3D cartoon featuring the voice of Steve Carell as a bumbling supervillain, stole the top spot at the weekend box office in North America on Sunday, signaling the entry of a pair of new rivals for Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.
The film earned an estimated $60.1 million across the United States and Canada during the three days beginning Friday, said Universal Pictures. Pre-opening forecasts were in the $30 million-$35 million range.
The General Electric Co unit financed and distributed the low-cost $69 million project, which marks the debut release from former 20th Century Fox animation chief Chris Meledandri's new company, Illumination Entertainment.
As with cartoon powerhouses Pixar and DreamWorks Animation's respective "Toy Story" and "Shrek" movies, a string of lucrative sequels is inevitable.
"This is going to be an absolutely great franchise for Universal and Illumination," said Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of distribution.
The film also earned $5 million after opening in five international markets. Russia led the way with a first-place $3.4 million start.
Carell, star of "The Office," supplies the voice of Gru, whose dastardly scheme to steal the moon is thwarted by three orphaned girls who see him as a father figure. Critics approved of the picture, noting its obvious debt to the Pixar oeuvre.
Coincidentally, Pixar's "Toy Story 3" became the biggest film both of the year and in the history of the Walt Disney Co unit.
The sequel slipped one place to No. 4 with $22 million, taking its total to $340.2 million after four weekends. If estimates hold when final data are released on Monday, it will have surpassed the $339.7 million total of Pixar's 2003 hit "Finding Nemo." In the 2010 rankings, it replaced "Alice in Wonderland" ($334 million) at the top.
DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc's fourth "Shrek" film, on the other hand, is nearing the end of its eight-weekend run with $234 million in the bag, the lowest score of the series even with the assistance of ticket-price inflation and higher prices for 3D screenings.
Last weekend's champion, "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," slipped to No. 2 with $33.4 million but remained No. 1 internationally.
The 12-day domestic total for the vampire romance stands at $237.0 million, just ahead of the $236 million that its immediate predecessor, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," had earned in the same period last November.
The new film should end up in the same range as -- or "a little bit north" of -- the $297 million total for "New Moon," said Richie Fay, president of distribution at Summit Entertainment, which released the series.
Internationally, it earned $81.1 million from 63 markets, taking its haul to $219 million.
Another new entrant to exceed modest expectations was "Predators," a revival of a franchise originated in 1987 by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new film, starring Adrien Brody as a black ops mercenary dropped onto an alien planet, opened at No. 3 in North America with $25.3 million.
Distributor 20th Century Fox had hoped for an opening in the low $20 million range for the $38 million Robert Rodriguez production. The News Corp unit said men accounted for about 70 percent of the audience. The film also earned $18 million from 22 foreign markets.
Yet another family film, "The Last Airbender," fell three places to No. 5 in North America, with $17.2 million in its second weekend. Director M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon series has earned $100.2 million to date, said Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc..
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Paul Simao and Bill Trott