"It's a unique thing," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. "Her star power transcends borders and genre."
Seth MacFarlane's Western comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West" was out-gunned by "Maleficent." The R-rated Universal release opened in third place with a tepid $17.1 million despite a starry cast of Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried. By contrast, MacFarlane's "Ted" (for which he's making a sequel) opened with $54.4 million in 2012.
Last weekend's top film, Fox's big-budget mutant sequel "X-Men: Days of Future Past," dropped to second with $32.6 million. It's a somewhat steep decline for "Days of Future Past," but the film made $95.6 million internationally in its second week, good enough to push its global cumulative total past $500 million already.
But "Maleficent" dominated the marketplace, which has seen female-leading films continually challenge the much-disputed but still prevalent notion that male stars fuel the box office.
"The whole movie kind of rises and sets on her performance," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "The concept is the character. The character is completely linked to the person playing that role."
The film was a balancing act for Disney, which is used to churning out brighter tales. Hollis credited the company's marketing department for "walking the fine line" of selling the movie to families (which made up 45 percent of the audience, according to Disney) and suggesting an edginess that would appeal to a broader audience. "Maleficent" earned about $100 million internationally.
"If you go to Disney, the longest lines are for the scariest rides," Dergarabedian said. "We're going to see more of this, where the villains are the new heroes."
Disney has had success reimagining fairy tales in recent years with "Alice in Wonderland" ($116 million in 2010) and "Oz the Great and Powerful" ($79.1 million debut in 2013). "Maleficent" fell short of those releases, but it was made in the same lineage. Robert Stromberg, the production designer for both earlier movies, makes his directorial debut with "Maleficent."
Next weekend will bring a battle between Shailene Woodley in the young adult novel adaptation "The Fault in Our Stars" and Tom Cruise in the sci-fi thriller "Edge of Tomorrow." "Edge of Tomorrow" got a jump on its North America release, taking in $20 million in 28 countries over the weekend.
Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by 21st Century Fox; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake—coyle