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Big Hero 6 beats Interstellar at box office

The animated Disney film topped the widely anticipated Chris Nolan epic.

A team of animated Marvel characters rocketed past a group of wormhole-bound astronauts at the weekend box office.

Disney's animated adventure "Big Hero 6," featuring the inflatable robot Baymax and his prodigy pal Hiro from the Marvel comic book, debuted in first place with $56.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. Paramount's space saga "Interstellar," starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as astronauts, took off in second place with $50 million, estimates said.

Before launching in more than 3,500 theaters this weekend, writer-director Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" played Wednesday and Thursday in about 250 theaters equipped to project the movie on film — "The Dark Knight" filmmaker's preferred method of showcasing his creations.

"Interstellar" opened below Nolan's last film, the mind-bending thriller "Inception," which conjured up $62.8 million when it debuted in 2010. Nolan's sci-fi odyssey also wasn't in the orbit of last year's $55.8 million opening for Paramount's previous space epic, "Gravity." ''Interstellar" has a hefty running time of 169 minutes, while "Gravity" clocked in at 91 minutes.

"The difference is 'Interstellar' isn't in 3D, and certainly the running time on our film does change the play pattern in that you lose an evening show," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's head of domestic marketing and distribution. "Given those factors, we did spectacularly well. 'Gravity' also opened by itself. We had another big film in the marketplace."

If the estimates hold up, this weekend will mark the fourth time in box office history that a pair of films both opened with $50 million or above. The previous matchups were "Monsters University" vs. "World War Z" in 2013, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" vs. "Prometheus" in 2012, and "WALL-E" vs. "Wanted" in 2008. In each instance, the animated option came out on top.

"Both movies were able to do well without cannibalizing each other's audiences," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak. "By opening a diversity of product against each other, the industry can expand the marketplace. It's a perfect example of counterprogramming. It paid off for the industry, and it just doesn't happen that often."

Dergarabedian noted the box office total was down about 7 percent compared with the same weekend last year, when the Disney superhero sequel "Thor: The Dark World" opened with $85.7 million.

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