In what was expected to be a tight race between “Rio” and “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family,” 20th Century Fox’s 3D animated pic managed to hang on to the domestic B.O.’s top spot with an estimated $26.8 million, showing the expected strength of families at the multiplexes during Easter weekend.

Perry’s brand popularity among ethnic auds and with families on Easter Sunday has made him a consistent player over the holiday, this time with Lionsgate’s “Happy Family” posting a solid $25.8 million.

“Rio,” which has cumed $81.3 million domestically, brought in an additional estimated $44.2 million in 67 overseas markets, lifting the international tally passed $200 million. Animated feature’s worldwide cume is $286 million, making it 2011’s best global performer after just three weeks.

While Fox’s toon scored a narrow Stateside victory, Perry’s newest pic debuted in line with what pre-weekend tracking had suggested, marking another strong start for the helmer and his fourth-best opener behind “Madea Goes to Jail,” with $41 million in 2009, and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” which bowed to $30 million in 2006. Last year, Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too?” debuted Easter weekend with $29.3 million, but that was in a more robust market.

Overall grosses this year were up 34% over the same frame in 2010, though it’s not a fair comparison since that weekend wasn’t a holiday.

Fox’s adult-targeted swooner “Water for Elephants” opened well, scoring $17.5 million playing at 2,817 locations. Despite the presence of Robert Pattinson, lit adaptation played overwhelmingly to women over 25, who contributed 70% of the film’s opening take.

Meanwhile, Disney’s latest Earth Day-timed nature docu, “African Cats,” from Disneynature, opened to a solid $6.4 million from 1,220. That’s better than the Mouse’s “Oceans,” which bowed this weekend last year with $6.1 million.

Among the frame’s top-holding repeat players, Universal’s Easter-themed “Hop” was up 17% over last weekend with an estimated $12.5 million, bringing domestic cume passed $100 million. Overseas, “Hop” took in a projected $10.7 million for an international tally of $47.2 million.

The Weinstein Co.’s “Scream 4,” with a cume of $31.2 million through Sunday, dropped a considerable 62% in its second outing, with an estimated $7.2 million for the weekend.

The frame’s bottom holdover half, led by Sony’s “Soul Surfer,” all fell less than 30% — mostly boosted by increased holiday traffic.

In the No. 7 spot, “Soul Surfer” tallied $5.6 million in its third outing, with a cume of $28.7 million; FilmDistrict’s “Insidious,” in its fourth frame, followed with $5.4 million, cuming $44.2 million. Kid-assassin thriller “Hanna,” from Focus Features, was down 28% with $5.3 million, and Summit’s “Source Code” dropped just 18% with $5.1 million. “Hanna” has cumed $31.7 million domestically; “Source Code,” $44.7 million.

Easter demo derby

Lionsgate distrib topper David Spitz said “Happy Family” didn’t play as young as Perry’s previous Madea pic, “Madea Goes to Jail.” That’s mostly due to the market’s recent malaise with under-25 auds as “Happy Family” scored 69% of its opening take from those over 25.

Pundits expect Sunday box office to be down overall, but family films like “Rio” and “African Cats” should fare fine. Traditionally, Perry pics have done exceptionally well on Easter Sunday because the helmer’s following also is made up of family filmgoers. “We anticipate a solid Sunday based on his two previous titles,” Spitz said.

As expected, “Happy Family” drew 81% of its opening from African-Americans, with strong turnouts in Baltimore, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“Rio” and “Hop” both benefited as the majority (68%) of students were out of school on Friday, with many parents off work to spend time with the family. Last week’s spring break-fueled mid-week perfs, as well as the holiday lead-in, were primary reasons why Fox and U, respectively, decided to launch their films during the B.O.’s early-to-mid April corridor.

Specialty holiday

Sony Pictures Classics launched a pair of specialty pics in limited release this weekend: Morgan Spurlock’s Sundance docu “Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” grossed an estimated $135,139 from 18 U.S. locations, while Oscar foreign-lingo candidate “Incendies” earned $54,582 at three domestic playdates.

“Greatest Movie,” with a per-screen average of $7,506, did much better than Spurlock’s “Freakonomics,” which averaged just $1,595 from 20 debut theaters last year. “Incendies” similarly outmatched Sony Classic’s Oscar-winning Danish pic “In a Better World,” which bowed Stateside on April 1 with an opening per of $8,264 from a comparable four locations.

Gotham’s Metropolitan Opera continued its fifth season of live transmissions Saturday, screening Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” for an estimated $2.09 million in North America. It was seen live on more than 750 screens, with an additional 300 in a total of 32 European and Latin American countries.