The top-12 movies hauled in $95.4 million, up 42 percent from the same weekend a year ago, when "The Game Plan" was No. 1 with $16.6 million.
"We had a huge weekend," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "That's really due to the little Chihuahua. The little dog made a big difference."
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, the DreamWorks-Paramount thriller "Eagle Eye," slipped to second-place with $17.7 million, raising its total to $54.6 million.
The PG-rated "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" took advantage of a long drought for movies aimed at families, who found the idea of a chatty Chihuahua irresistible.
"They're so cute, and they seem to have great facial expressions, so that adds to all the fun of the whole thing," said Chuck Viane, Disney's head of distribution.
Hollywood's other new wide releases had fair to poor premieres.
Sony's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings as teens who fall for each other on a wild New York City night, had a sturdy No. 3 debut of $12 million.
The Warner Bros. Western "Appaloosa," which had played two weeks in a handful of theaters, expanded solidly to come in at No. 5 with $5 million. "Appaloosa" was directed by Ed Harris, who stars with Viggo Mortensen and Renee Zellweger.
Vivendi Entertainment's "An American Carol," a satire of Hollywood's liberal politics from director David Zucker ("Airplane!"), debuted at No. 9 with $3.8 million. The movie stars Kevin Farley as a Michael Moore-type filmmaker aiming to abolish the Fourth of July holiday.
Universal's "Flash of Genius," starring Greg Kinnear as the engineer who invented intermittent windshield wipers then spent decades suing automakers over the innovation, opened weakly with $2.3 million, finishing at No. 11.
Two other movies, the comedy "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" and the apocalyptic "Blindness," both bombed.
Miramax's "Blindness," featuring Julianne Moore, Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo in a nightmare tale about a plague of sightlessness, took in just $2 million, averaging an anemic $1,185 in 1,690 theaters.
"How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," released by MGM and starring Kirsten Dunst and Simon Pegg in a celebrity satire set at a slick magazine, did $1.4 million in 1,750 theaters for a feeble $801 average.
By comparison, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" averaged $9,020 in 3,215 theaters; "Nick and Norah" pulled in $4,957 in 2,421 locations; "Appaloosa" did $4,799 in 1,045 cinemas; "An American Carol" took in $2,325 in 1,639 sites; and "Flash of Genius" did $2,120 in 1,098 theaters.
In narrower release, Bill Maher's documentary "Religulous" opened well, placing No. 10 with $3.5 million in 502 theaters, averaging $6,972. The Lionsgate release follows Maher as he travels the world to mock one of his favorite topics, organized religion.
Anne Hathaway's "Rachel Getting Married" had a strong start in limited release, taking in $302,934 in nine theaters for a whopping $33,659 average. The Sony Pictures Classics drama stars Hathaway as an addict who leaves rehab to come home for her sister's wedding and forces her family to relive the anguish of past tragedy.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," $29 million.
2. "Eagle Eye," $17.7 million.
3. "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," $12 million.
4. "Nights in Rodanthe," $7.4 million.
5. "Appaloosa," $5 million.
6. "Lakeview Terrace," $4.5 million.
7. "Burn After Reading," $4.08 million.
8. "Fireproof," $4.07 million.
9. "An American Carol," $3.8 million.
10. Religulous, $3.5 million.
Slideshow archive | Local events | Contests | Headlines at a glance