Box Office: 'Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug' Nabs $31.1 Million Friday in U.S.

UPDATED: The weekend's other new entry, "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas," earned $5.74 million Friday.

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug earned a solid $31.3 million (including $3.9 million in Imax) at the North American box office Friday. That's a 16 percent drop from the $37.5 million that the first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, nabbed in December 2012 to score the biggest Friday ever in the month of December.

The weekend's other new wide release, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas, earned $5.74 million Friday.

While the second film in the Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy is debuting lighter than its predecessor in the U.S., it's still doing big business domestically and even stronger business overseas.

Box office observers expect the new pic, a New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. production, to open around $73 million domestically, a slight drop from An Unexpected Journey's $84.6 million in its U.S. debut. The 3D film, which is rated PG-13 and has received overall positive reviews, is opening in more than 3,900 theaters in the U.S.

Smaug, which will easily open No. 1 domestically this weekend, received an A- Cinemascore. The pic is hitting theaters in a different environment than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which faced hardly any competition when it stormed into the box office in 2012.

Along with new entry Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas, there are two strong holdovers -- Disney's animated pic Frozen and Lionsgate's hit The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which are in their third and fourth weeks, respectively. While they won't compete for the top spot, their combined pull is certain to be higher than the $7 million that Rise of the Guardians and Lincoln took in the week that An Unexpected Journey opened.

STORY: Inside 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Premiere: Middle Earth Comes to Hollywood

Smaug earned $8.8 million at midnight shows Thursday, a 32 percent drop from the $13 million An Unexpected Journey grossed when it opened exactly one year ago. However, midnight showings aren't always an accurate indicator for how a film will do over the weekend, especially one that demands nearly three hours of time for a viewing. And Smaug is likely to pick up steam in the U.S. as holiday vacation begins.

The film, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel, stars Martin Freeman as hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who travels with a group of dwarfs to face off against the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace and Luke Evans co-star.

Despite a slower start, Smaug could still reach An Unexpected Journey's final $1 billion worldwide tally since it's likely to do big business overseas. The adventure film also is opening in 49 territories abroad this weekend, including eight of the top 12 markets (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Brazil and Korea).

The film is doing strong business abroad, opening No. 1 in several markets and grossing $29.3 million Friday with more than 3 million admissions from 15,950 screens. (This is more than 5 percent ahead of An Unexpected Journey's pace.) The running foreign tally is $53.35 million.

With Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas earning $5.74 million in North America Friday, the film is tracking to earn around $15 million to 16 million in its debut, which would be lower than the solid numbers of all previous Madea films. Lionsgate is opening the film in 2,194 locations.

The last Madea film, Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection, opened in June 2012 to the tune of $25.4 million. It went on to gross $65.7 million in the U.S. Madea Christmas is Lionsgate and Tyler Perry's eighth Madea film.

It's likely that Disney's family film Frozen, which earned $5.1 million Friday in the U.S., will gross around $24 million in its third outing, which would land it in the No. 2 spot for the weekend. The musical animated film is on its way to a North American tally of about $165 million by Sunday.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire grossed $4.1 million Friday (a 47 percent drop from the previous Friday) and is on track to earn around $14 million this week, which would push the YA adaptation's North American total to $357 million.

Opening in six locations this week, Columbia Pictures/Annapurna Pictures' American Hustle earned a stellar $210,909. The film -- starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence -- expands wide next week.

Disney's Saving Mr. Banks opened in 15 theaters to take in $126,000 Friday. It also expands next week.

Twitter: @Beccamford