A stirring first release for Rupert Murdoch’s former lieutenant Peter Chernin saw Fox’s prequel rise to the top and beat projections to open on an estimated $54m.

On the basis of this launch and a string of mostly positive reviews, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes appears to herald a potentially lucrative new franchise for Fox.

James Franco and Freida Pinto are the on-screen human stars but WETA Digital and the wonders of motion capture technology once again impress with their work, in this case rendering apes. Andy Serkis in particular catches the eye as the simian leader Caesar.

“We’re thrilled to launch Chernin Entertainment with a film that so positively resonated with audiences,” Chernin and associate Dylan Clark said. “We’re proud of the artistic achievement of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, as it is a testament to a smart script, great direction by Rupert Wyatt, stellar actor performances, the amazing visual effects created by the WETA team, and the passion and dedication of the entire crew and our partners at Twentieth Century Fox.”

Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens narrowly beat Sony’s The Smurfs in the domestic box office race last weekend, however the sci-fi action fell from first to third place for a $67.4m running total, while its blue rivals held firm in second and have amassed $76.2m.

Universal’s body-swap comedy The Change-Up starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman opened fourth on $13.5m. Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger ranks fifth on $143.2m after three weekends through Paramount and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 in sixth place has amassed $342.8m through Warner Bros after four.

Samuel Goldwyn Films opened its Toronto 2010 pick-up The Whistleblower starring Rachel Weisz and reported $58,100 from seven theatres. Oscilloscope released its Sundance acquisitions Bellflower to $24,000 from two.

Next weekend’s wide releases are DreamWorks’ Oscar hopeful The Help through Disney starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain; Columbia’s adventure comedy 30 Minutes Or Less with Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride; Fox’s Glee The 3D Concert Movie; and New Line’s Final Destination 5 through Warner Bros.

Estimated Top 10 North America Aug 5-7, 2011
Film (Dist) / Est wkd gross / Est total to date

1 (-) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Fox) Fox Int’l $54m –

2 (2) The Smurfs (Sony) SPRI $21m $76.2m

3 (1) Cowboys & Aliens (Universal) PPI $15.7m $67.4m

4 (-) The Change-Up (Universal) UIP $13.5m –

5 (3) Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount/Marvel) PPI $13m $143.2m

6 (4) Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Warner Bros) WBPI $12.2m $342.8m

7 (5) Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Warner Bros) WBPI $12.1m $42.2m

8 (6) Friends With Benefits (Screen Gems) SPRI $4.7m $48.5m

9 (7) Horrible Bosses (Warner Bros/New Line) WBPI $4.6m $105.2m

10 (8) Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (Paramount) PPI $3m $344.2m