Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol easily beat its rivals in the race to No. 1 at box offices over the Christmas holiday weekend, returning action star Tom Cruise to winning form after several recent flops.

Ghost Protocol, the fourth movie in Cruise's Mission: Impossible series, earned an estimated $46 million at U.S. and Canadian theaters in the four days ending on Monday, according to its distributor Paramount Pictures. Its total estimated ticket sales have reached $78.6 million after debuting in Imax and other large-screen theaters last weekend.

At international theaters, the movie dubbed MI4, which cost around $145 million to make, sold an additional $140 million worth of tickets through Sunday. Paramount noted its audience rating from researcher CinemaScore was an A- and Rottentomatoes.com, a website that combines critics' reviews, gave the movie a 94 percent positive rating overall.

We're pleased with the way we went with the movie, starting with premium pricing on large screens and letting the reviews and word-of-mouth (publicity) get out ahead of the movie, said Don Harris, president of distribution for Paramount.

Important for leading man Cruise, 49, is that after several box office flops in recent years, including dramas Valkyrie and Lions for Lambs, and action-packed Knight and Day, the success of Ghost Protocol has meant a return to the top of box office charts.

Elsewhere, Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows took the No. 2 spot with an estimated $31.8 million over the four days, followed by 20th Century Fox family comedy Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked with a $20 million total that barely put it ahead of No. 4, adult thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, at $19.4 million.

Since its midweek debut last week, Dragon Tattoo has earned $27.7 million. A Sony spokesman called it a good start that should build this coming week and into the new year.

HO HUM 2011, DOWN 4.45 PCT

Indeed, many new movies hit theaters ahead of, and during, the Christmas holiday weekend -- including Dragon Tattoo, two movies from Steven Spielberg, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, and the Cameron Crowe comedy, We Bought A Zoo.

The studios expect strong demand in the days ahead while many families take time from work and school, but it is unlikely a surge can lead the domestic box office to topple last year's nearly $10.6 billion in annual ticket sales.

In fact, the top 12 movies this past weekend generated $114 million at box offices, down about 15 percent from last year, according to box office watcher Hollywood.com.

Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com now estimates total 2011 annual domestic (U.S. and Canada) box office at $10.1 billion by year's end, down 4.45 percent from 2010. Attendance so far in 2011 is off about 5 percent, while the average ticket price increased to $7.96 from $7.89.

Still, movie demand did pick up for some new titles over the weekend, and among those making a surge was Fox comedy We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon. It saw ticket sales jump 139 percent from Saturday to Sunday, its distributor 20th Century Fox said, landing it at No. 6 with $15.6 million, just behind family film Tintin at No. 5 with $16.1 million.

I think playability and word-of-mouth is finally getting out about Zoo, said Chris Aronson, who heads domestic distribution for Fox. He noted the movie generated an A overall from moviegoers polled by CinemaScore.

Spielberg's War Horse landed in the No. 7 spot with $15 million, and another newcomer, thriller The Darkest Hour, opened eighth with $5.5 million over the four days.

Rounding out the top 10 were holdovers New Year's Eve at No. 9 with slightly under $5 million and George Clooney drama The Descendants in the 10th position with $3.4 million.

Paramount Pictures is a unit of Viacom Inc. Warner Bros. is part of Time Warner Inc.. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released by the movie studio division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp. Chipwrecked and Zoo were both released by film divisions of 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp..