By Piya Sinha-Roy and Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Wreck-It Ralph," Disney's animated film about a videogame character who destroys everything in his path, scored the highest-grossing opening weekend in Disney animation history with $49.1 million, as box office attendance picked up in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
The tally for "Wreck-It Ralph," which features the voices of John C. Reilly and Jane Lynch, hammered the Denzel Washington film "Flight," which generated ticket sales of $25 million at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to studio estimates on Sunday.
After a quiet box office last weekend with the U.S. East Coast preparing for superstorm Sandy, there was a jump in movie attendance this week in areas hit by the storm.
Dave Hollis, executive vice president of film distribution at Walt Disney Studios, told Reuters that movie attendance in affected areas was "very healthy," boosted by school closures on Friday, which saw a bounce in matinee showings.
"In a nice way, 'Wreck-It Ralph,' in areas affected by the storm, ended up actually becoming an opportunity to relieve yourself from the reality that might be going on around you, we saw the theater business around areas affected by the storm very healthy," Hollis said.
"The storm and its impact - I don't know if it was a function of cabin fever or just escaping by getting into a movie theater, but there was definitely a gravitating-towards-the- theater phenomenon."
Disney had developed "Wreck-It Ralph" for more than a decade and spent an estimated $165 million to produce the film, which featured cameo appearances by a Pac-Man ghost and Mentos candy.
The film was produced by the same team behind Disney's animated film "Tangled," which earned the previous highest opening weekend gross with $48.8 million in 2010. "Wreck-It Ralph" was forecast to generate sales in the mid-$40 million range, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of Hollywood.com.
New release "Flight," in which Washington stars as an airline captain who saves his plane from crashing but is accused of drinking before the flight, beat industry analysts' $13 million forecast. The film, produced by Viacom's Paramount Pictures unit, was made on a $31 million budget.
Unlike "Wreck-It Ralph," "Flight" did not experience the same benefit from school closures in parts of the East Coast, according to Don Harris, president of distribution at Paramount Pictures.
"The Disney movie would benefit from school being out in a large number of big urban and suburban eastern markets, they were always going to have a very good opening, I think they got a little help on Friday," Harris told Reuters.
He also said that the target adult audience for "Flight" would have probably been occupied with Tuesday's presidential election and being "more active in helping people in their neighborhood" in the aftermath of Sandy, and not necessarily attending theaters this weekend.
"We did about what we expected to do but we certainly didn't get a bump. I don't think it hurt us very much either," Harris said.
Critically acclaimed Iran hostage thriller "Argo," last week's box office leader, came in third this weekend after generating $10.2 million in sales.
Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, "Argo," produced by Warner Bros. and GK Films for $44 million, is based on the true story of a mission to rescue U.S. government employees held hostage in Iran in 1979. It has totaled $75.9 million in three weeks at movie theaters and earned Oscar buzz after stellar reviews from critics.
New release "The Man With The Iron Fists" was unable to beat "Argo's" momentum this weekend and came in fourth with ticket sales of $8.2 million.
Starring Russell Crowe and hip hop artist RZA, the film, produced on a budget of $15 million, follows a blacksmith in 19th-century China trying to defend his village from warriors and assassins searching for gold.
In fifth place, "Taken 2," an action-thriller starring Liam Neeson as a former spy who is kidnapped in Istanbul, earned $6 million this weekend. It has generated a total of $125.7 million at the U.S. and Canadian box office since its release last month.
Overseas, the new James Bond film, "Skyfall," enjoyed a stellar second weekend, earning $156 million in ticket sales at the international box office. The film will be released in North American theaters on November 9.
Walt Disney Co released "Wreck-It Ralph." "Flight" was distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc. Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner Inc, distributed "Argo." Universal Studios released "Man with the Iron Fists." "Taken 2" was released by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy and Ronald Grover; Editing by Eric Beech)