New Line's J R R Tolkientrilogy finale The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King obliteratedthe opposition at the weekend, opening top on an estimated $73.6m from itsfirst three days on 7,205 screens and a staggering $125.1m from its first five.

The third and final episodein Peter Jackson's acclaimed fantasy adaptation averaged $19,876 from 3,703theatres and set several records along the way.

This was the best three-dayDecember opening in industry history, the best Wednesday release ever and thethird best bow of the year behind The Matrix Reloaded ($91.8m) and X2($85.6m).

Perhaps most significantly,bearing in mind the extraordinary simultaneous $121m international tally from28 territories, the studio is claiming the biggest ever five-day worldwideopening of $246.1m.

The opening was 24% up onthe $62m grossed by trilogy predecessor The Two Towers this time lastyear. That film went on to make $341m. The Fellowship Of The Ring, theone that started it all in December 2001, took $47.2m in its first three daysand finished on $314m.

Viggo Mortensen, ElijahWood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler et al reprise their roles as the battlingdo-gooders who join forces to destroy the One ring and overthrow the evil rulerSauron.

Columbia/Revolution's dramaMona Lisa Smile opened a distant second on $12m for a $4,482 average from2,677 theatres.

Julia Roberts stars as afree-spirited Berkeley graduate who attempts to liberate art history studentsat a stuffy women's college. Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunstalso star in Mike Newell's film, which received a drubbing from the critics.

With no other new releasesin the top 10 it was time for the others to busy themselves with a spot ofholiday season entrenchment.

Last week's number oneopener, Columbia/Revolution's Something's Gotta Give, slipped two placesto third on $11.5m for a $33.5m running total, while Warner Bros' The LastSamurai fell two to fourth in its third week on $7.3m for $59.1m.

Elf added to New Line's joywith a sixth place hold that added $5m for a superb $154.3m cumulative score inits seventh week. It is now the sixth biggest US grossing title of the year.

Overall the top 12 titlescombined for a $134m gross, up 1% on the same time last year when The TwoTowers was the chief driver.

Next weekend's releasesinclude Miramax's American Civil War odyssey Cold Mountain, starringJude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger; Paramount's thriller Payckeck,starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman; Universal's live-action version of PeterPan, starring Jason Isaacs and Ludivine Sagnier; and 20thCentury Fox's comedy Cheaper By The Dozen, which stars Steve Martin andBonnie Hunt.

Estimated Top Ten US Dec 19-21 2003
Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekend gross/Estimatedtotal to date
1 (-) The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (New Line) NLI$73.6m $125.1m
2 (-) Mona Lisa Smile (Columbia/Revolution) CTFDI $12m -
3 (1) Something's Gotta Give (Columbia) CTFDI/Warner Bros Int'l $11.5m$33.5m
4 (2) The Last Samurai (Warner Bros) Warner Bros Int'l $7.3m $59.1m
5 (3) Stuck On You (Fox) Fox Int'l $5.4m $17.1m
6 (6) Elf (New Line) NLI $5m $154.3m
7 (7) Bad Santa (Dimension) Miramax International $4.3m $42.1m fourth
8 (5) The Haunted Mansion (Buena Vista) BVI $4.2m $59.1m
9 (4) Love Don't Cost A Thing (Warner Bros) Warner Bros Int'l $3.9m$11.4m
10 (8) Honey (Universal) UIP $2.6m $23.5m