'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' continues the journey of Bilbo Baggins and a band of dwarves as they attempt to take their gold back from Smaug the Dragon.
While hobbits remain lords of the box office, the little guys may be losing some oomph at theaters.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three Hobbit films, opened to a solid $73.7 million, according to studio estimates from box office trackers Rentrak.
The debut was plenty to dominate the weekend, though it fell a shade under most analysts' expectations and comes in below last year's Peter Jackson entry, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opened to $84.6 million the weekend of Dec. 14. Forecasters called for an opening of at least $75 million.
Tim Briody, analyst for Boxofficeprophets.com, wonders whether, after five films based on the J.R.R. Tolkien Middle-earth series, audiences are suffering shire fatigue.
"This is a solid number on paper," says Briody. But the opening suggests "the further we get into the series the more devoted one needs to be to the books to be interested."
Still, the opening marks the second-highest debut of the franchise, behind only the original Hobbit film and ahead of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which debuted to $72.6 million in 2003. The final installment, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, arrives Dec. 17, 2014.
And it's not like the franchise will hurt for cash, says Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo, who says the films' worldwide popularity ensures the series makes millions. The movie earned an approval rate of 74% from critics and 88% with moviegoers, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
"Regardless of how it does at the domestic box office, Smaug is still going to be a success," Subers says. "While it may not be able to match its predecessor's $714 million overseas haul, it's hard to imagine it earning a dime less than $600 million."
The Disney animated film Frozen took second with $22.2 million, while Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas was third with $16 million, meeting most projections.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was fourth with $13.2 million, while Thor: The Dark World was a distant fifth with $2.7 million.
Final figures are due Monday.