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The Rise of Skywalker gives Disney more box office cheer

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Carrie Fisher (right) as General Leia Organa, with Daisy Ridley as Rey. Director J J Abrams used outtakes from The Force Awakens to deliver a performance by the late Carrie Fisher.

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The droid BB-8 (left),who with his big central eye made his first appearance in The Force Awakens, was designed to be loved. In The Rise of Skywalker, BB-8 is joined by yet another loveable driod, D-O.

Los Angeles

DISNEY's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker took in US$175.5 million in its opening weekend in the US and Canada, delivering yet another hit in what has been a record year for Walt Disney Co.

While still ranking as the third-biggest December opening of all-time, the results trailed what some forecasters were estimating. Ticket sales came in 29 per cent below The Force Awakens, the first film in the Disney-produced trilogy.

Receipts were higher last Thursday and Friday than over the weekend, suggesting that die-hard fans saw it immediately, while other moviegoers may have been distracted by holiday shopping.

The new film, directed by J J Abrams, had to navigate tricky waters, pleasing legions of Star Wars fans while also delivering a conclusion to the current trilogy of pictures.

At a press event this month, Abrams said he relied on the talent to help him pull it off. "The scale of the movie is pretty enormous and none of that would work if you didn't care deeply," he said. "The most important thing is the people. We have this incredible cast."

Internationally, The Rise of Skywalker took in US$198 million, Comscore estimated on Sunday. The film took in US$12.1 million in China, where generally the Star Wars movies have been less popular.

Other films opening this weekend did far less well with Cats, an adaptation of the Broadway show, taking in US$6.5 million and Bombshell about the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, generating US$5.1 million.

"We are just excited that fans came out (for Star Wars), given that this is a saga that evolved over more than 40 years," said Cathleen Taff, who oversees worldwide film distribution for Disney.

The picture likely benefited from other Star Wars productions this year, such as the opening of two themed lands at the company's theme parks and a hit show, The Mandalorian, on Disney's new streaming service.

Disney pitched its new movie as the "riveting conclusion of the Skywalker saga". It features fresh faces from 2015's The Force Awakens, as well as beloved characters from the original Star Wars picture in 1977.

The lineup included relatively newcomers Daisy Ridley as the heroine Rey, and Adam Driver as her evil foil Kylo Ren.

Original players returning to the series included Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. Abrams used outtakes from The Force Awakens to deliver a performance by the late Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia.

Attendees at the premiere in Los Angeles last week gushed about the film on social media, and presales at ticketing sites were strong.

But The Rise of Skywalker fared poorly with critics, scoring just 57 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates reviews.

The general public was far kinder, rating it 86 per cent fresh on the same site. Moviegoers polled by Cinemascore gave the film a B+ grade, the first time a Star Wars picture has scored less than an A.

Disney is now at a bit of a turning point with the brand. The Force Awakens set records in 2015. But its sequel, The Last Jedi, made less money.

A stand-alone film based on the Han Solo character bombed last year. Disney's chief executive officer Bob Iger told Bloomberg News earlier this year that the film series would go on a "hiatus" after this film.

The next Star Wars picture is not scheduled until December 2022.

The Rise of Skywalker caps what has been a momentous year for Disney's film division. The movie looks to be the seventh Disney release in 2019 that exceeds US$1 billion in worldwide ticket sales.

That's an unprecedented accomplishment for the company, which has already topped US$10 billion in total box office worldwide.

The company enjoyed its best year ever at the box office, fuelled by megahits such as Avengers: Endgame and The Lion King.

The rest of the industry has not been so fortunate. Overall domestic revenue is down 4.7 per cent from 2018, when ticket sales generated a record US$11.9 billion, according to Comscore. BLOOMBERG