Disney's Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has knocked Joker out of the No 1 spot at the box office, but just barely.

Studios on Sunday say the film starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning grossed an estimated US$36 million ($56.4m) in North America and US$117 million ($183.3m) internationally in its first weekend in theaters. The first film had a much stronger US domestic showing, opening to nearly US$70m ($109.7m) domestically in 2014, and the sequel was expected to earn more stateside.

"It's not as strong as we hoped domestically, but it's a good start for October and we have a great window leading into Halloween," said Cathleen Taff, Disney's president of theatrical distribution. "Most encouraging is the fact that audiences seem to be responding very positively."

Angelina Jolie returns to play the revisionist version of the villain from the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. Photo / AP
Angelina Jolie returns to play the revisionist version of the villain from the 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. Photo / AP

The A CinemaScore, in contrast to the mixed critical reviews, suggests that the film could have a longer life at the box office.

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Although it fell to second place after two weekends at the top, Warner Bros' Joker continues to hold strong at the box office. It added US$29.2 million ($45.7m) in its third weekend in North America. The villain origin story has grossed over US$247m ($387) domestically. Worldwide, it's earned US$737.5m ($1.15b), and has already surpassed the lifetime grosses of Justice League and Suicide Squad.

Now the big question is whether the R-rated film will make it to US$1 billion, but with a US$55m ($86.2m) production budget, it's already a massive hit for the studio and will likely also become director Todd Phillips' highest-grossing film too.

"It's already in territory that nobody thought it would get to. It's achieved a box office that is above the wildest expectations of the studio and analysts," said Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore's senior media analyst. "Even if the box office stopped right now it's an absolute, unqualified success."

Third place went to another new sequel, Columbia Pictures' Zombieland: Double Tap with US$26.7m ($41.8m). The R-rated comedy comes 10 years after the original, reuniting Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Woody Harrelson with director Ruben Fleischer.

"Three films earning over US$25m ($39m), that doesn't happen very often," Dergarabedian noted, although the weekend is down from last year when "Halloween" opened to over US$76m ($119m).