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By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES, July 13 (Reuters) - The "Hellboy" sequel sizzled at the weekend box office in North America, while Eddie Murphy bombed with his latest comedy, "Meet Dave," according to studio estimates issued on Sunday.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army," starring Ron Perlman as a cigar-chomping demon who fights evil, opened at No. 1 after selling about $35.9 million worth of tickets.
The Universal Pictures release, which cost about $85 million to make, exceeded industry expectations, as well as the $23.2 million start for its 2004 predecessor, "Hellboy."
Both films were directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who in the interim enjoyed huge success with his 2006 fantasy thriller "Pan's Labyrinth."
The sequel becomes the third comic-book property to lead the field this summer, following "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk." But its reign will be brief, as the highly anticipated Batman sequel "The Dark Knight" opens on Friday.
Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said the studio's marketing efforts emphasized the fantasy and emotional elements to differentiate the film from the other comic-book movies.
The first "Hellboy" film went on to make about $60 million domestically -- evidently not enough to dissuade its distributor, Columbia, from letting the franchise move to Universal.
Universal, a unit of General Electric Co (GE.N), hopes there will be a third film, but Del Toro's availability is unclear since he will be tied up with the "Hobbit" movie for the next few years.
"HANCOCK" STILL HOT
Last weekend's champ, Columbia Pictures' Will Smith superhero comedy "Hancock," slipped to No. 2 with $33 million, taking its 12-day total to $165 million. The film's overseas total raced to $180 million, and the Sony Corp (6758.T) (SNE.N) studio said it is on track to exceed $500 million worldwide.
Also new was the Warner Bros. family adventure "Journey to the Center of the Earth," starring Brendan Fraser, which opened at No. 3 with $20.6 million, also exceeding expectations.
Venues equipped with 3-D capabilities accounted for 30 percent of the locations, but 57 percent of the gross, said the Time Warner Inc (TWX.N)-owned studio. The film cost about $54 million to make.
"Meet Dave" opened at No. 7 with just $5.3 million. It ranks as Murphy's biggest flop since "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," which opened to $2.2 million in 2002.
Murphy plays two roles: the tiny commander of an alien space ship as well as the spacecraft itself. One role he avoided was publicity for the movie: He did not show up for the world premiere last week.
The film, which cost about $60 million to make, was released by News Corp's NWSa.N 20th Century Fox, which shared the cost with two other production entities. The comedy also earned $3.6 million from 18 foreign markets, with Russia accounting for $1.5 million.
In addition to Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," next weekend will also see the North American release of the ABBA-inspired musical "Mamma Mia!" The Universal Pictures release opened at No. 1 in Britain this weekend with $24 million. Not surprisingly, it was also No. 1 in Sweden, ABBA's home territory, as well as Australia, where the '70s foursome was a cultural phenomenon. (Reporting by Dean Goodman, editing by Cynthia Osterman)