'Clause' will have greatest effect


Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh reporter Borat may well receive the most media attention when his mockumentary "Borat" bows at the North American boxoffice this weekend. But the winner of the frame will be the third installment in Buena Vista Pictures' successful "Santa Clause" franchise, "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," even though DreamWorks Animation will be competing for some of the family boxoffice with "Flushed Away," Aardman Animations' entree into CGI.

Opening in 3,458 theaters, "Clause 3," starring Tim Allen and Martin Short, is sure to dominate. The movie comes from the same producers who delivered "The Santa Clause 2" in November 2002, including Robert Newmyer, who passed away in December.

"Clause 3" features Allen revisiting his role as Saint Nick, this time battling Jack Frost (Short) while also trying to keep his new family happy. Directed by Michael Lembeck ("Clause 2"), "Clause 3" co-stars Ann-Margret and Judge Reinhold. The G-rated film is unlikely to open in the range of its predecessor, which bowed to $29 million, considering the competition from "Flushed," opening via Paramount Pictures.

British-based Aardman, which usually works in stop-motion animation, is venturing into CGI for the first time, though it is unclear how that will affect "Flushed's" grosses. According to those following the film, it is looking to open in the same range as Aardman's last venture, "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." That movie had a loyal following because of the innovative "Wallace & Gromit" shorts that preceded it, but it opened to a disappointing $16 million and went on to earn $56 million.

Similar numbers are expected for the PG-rated "Flushed." Featuring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen and Bill Nighy, the movie centers on an uptown rat who is flushed down the toilet of his penthouse apartment and forced to live in the sewers of London. David Bowers and Sam Fell direct in their feature film debut.

The film might suffer from the recent glut of talking-animal movies. However, Sony Pictures Animation successfully avoided that obstacle with its recent "Open Season," and "Flushed" comes a strategic six weeks after that bow. The new movie's biggest challenge will be finding its own audience with "Clause 3" also in the marketplace.

And then there is "Borat." From the comedic minds of Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles ("Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), the $18 million film centers on Borat's road trip across the U.S. It has caught the disapproving attention of the president of Kazakhstan, spurred blog attention and is on track to become a comedic classic.

"Borat" distributor 20th Century Fox has pared the R-rated film's original release schedule to 837 playdates, with plans to expand next weekend to about 2,000. Prognosticators have the film bowing in the $8 million-$10 million range, but if word-of-mouth spreads quickly, it could open with $12 million-$15 million, which could set up the film for an astonishing run.

In limited release, Sony Pictures Classics will unveil "Volver," from Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar. Starring Penelope Cruz, the R-rated comedy revolves around the themes of motherhood and love. "Volver" will open in five theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

IFC, through its First Take division, opened "Unknown" in two theaters Wednesday. The Greg Kinnear starrer revolves around five men who wake up in a warehouse with no idea how they got there.