Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie had plenty of sting left during its second weekend, replacing American Gangster as the No. 1 choice for North American moviegoers.

As ticket sales returned to their unusually lackluster routine, Bee Movie, the cartoon Seinfeld originated and stars in, rose to the top with a three-day haul of $26 million during its second weekend of North American release, according to studio estimates issued on Sunday.

The DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc production, traded places with Universal Pictures' Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe crime saga American Gangster, which slipped to No. 2 with $24.3 million, also in its second round.

The last movie to rise through the rankings and hit No. 1 for the first time was Wedding Crashers in July 2005. (Former champ The Chronicles of Narnia regained the No. 1 slot in January 2006.)

The comedy Fred Claus, featuring Wedding Crashers star Vince Vaughn, opened at No. 3 with a respectable $19.2 million. Tom Cruise's rare foray into low-budget drama, Lions for Lambs, opened at No. 4 with $6.7 million, which was in line with modest industry expectations.

Lions for Lambs marks the first United Artists release since Cruise and production partner Paula Wagner took control of MGM's dormant art-house division a year ago.

After ending a six-week losing streak last weekend, overall year-on-year sales fell once again. The top-12 films earned $99 million, down 11 percent from the year-ago period, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers.

Some industry pundits had forecast Fred Claus could hit No. 1 if Bee and Gangster lost more than half of their opening-weekend audiences. In fact the duo held up remarkably well, off just 32 percent and 44 percent, respectively. The 10-day tally for Bee Movie stands at $72.2 million, while American Gangster has earned $80.7 million.

Vaughn headlines the Warner Bros. release as Santa's bitter older brother. It fell far short of his 2006 comedy The Break Up, which started with $39 million, but the studio said Fred Claus was being positioned for the holiday crowd.

These Christmas-themed movies aren't about the opening weekend, said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.' general sales manager of domestic distribution.

The opening for Lions for Lambs did not exactly come close to such Cruise blockbusters as War of the Worlds or the Mission: Impossible series. But distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer said that was never the intention. In fact, the closely held studio is promoting it as a Robert Redford vehicle rather than a Cruise vehicle, since the Hollywood veteran directed and co-stars.

The critically maligned political commentary on contemporary U.S. mores, drew an older audience, and feedback was a little disappointing, said Clark Woods, president of distribution at MGM.

The only other new release in the top 10 was the indie woman-in-distress thriller P2, which came in at No. 8 with $2.2 million. Rachel Nichols stars as a young executive pursued in an underground garage by a sadistic security guard.

Bee Movie was distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc. Universal Pictures is a unit of General Electric Co and Warner Bros. Pictures is a unit of Time Warner Inc. P2 was released by Summit Entertainment, which is privately held. MGM is also privately held.

(Editing by Bill Trott)