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Can ''Lord of the Rings'' best ''Harry Potter''?

Despite strong reviews, the epic fantasy isn’t likely to shatter ”Harry”’s box office record

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Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, ...
Lord of the Rings: Pierre Vinet

Many critics are gushing over the first installment of New Line’s ”The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum called the film triumphant and awarded it an A), and advance tickets for first-day screenings sold out in some cities. But does the film’s motley gang of hobbits, elves, and dwarfs have what it takes to outperform a certain 11-year-old wizard’s projected $300 million box office tally? ”It’s a really good movie and it will be a big hit,” says Adam Farasati, media analyst for ReelSource. ”But it won’t be another ‘Harry Potter’ by a long shot.”

Farasati, who believes ”Rings” will fall short of the $200 million mark, says furry footed hobbits aren’t cool enough to lure that critical box office demographic: male teens. ”Fantasy is box office poison,” he says, citing such duds as ”Dungeons & Dragons,” ”Dragonheart,” and ”The 13th Warrior.” ”This movie can transcend its genre because the books have so many fans all over the world, but nobody wants to buy a ticket to the movie nerds are lining up for.”

And women may not be buying either. According to Farasati, the high-caliber cast — including Oscar nominees Ian McKellen (”Gods and Monsters”) and Cate Blanchett (”Elizabeth”) — is long on talent but short on sex appeal and star power: ”If you’re a fan of indie films, this cast may excite you, but mainstream America isn’t familiar with these names. The closest thing the movie has to a sex symbol is Viggo Mortensen, who doesn’t look so hot here. Plus, Elijah Wood is no Han Solo. There’s not a lot to appeal to women.”

And there’s another hurdle: While ”Harry” opened to little competition on Nov. 16 (”The Wash” and ”Novocaine” were the big challengers), ”Rings” is debuting in a month packed with Oscar hopefuls and A-list stars: ”Vanilla Sky” (Tom Cruise), ”A Beautiful Mind” (Russell Crowe), and ”The Majestic” (Jim Carrey) open within days of ”Lord,” and ”Ali” (Will Smith) isn’t far behind. ”For this movie to crack $200 million, it’s going to have to reach adults as well as teens,” says Farasati. ”And there’s a lot out there to distract them right now.”

But ”Rings” does have some magical powers that the kid-pleasing but rather weakly reviewed ”Harry” lacks. ”The feeling is that ‘Lord of the Rings’ could be an Oscar contender, and that always helps at the box office,” notes Exhibitor Relations movie analyst Paul Dergarabedian. And, unlike weightier films like ”Ali” and ”A Beautiful Mind,” ”Lord” is the only new release that’s a rollicking good time. ”This film provides an escape for audiences, ” says Dergarabedian, ”and people need that right now.”

”Rings” has one other trick up its sleeve. Even if it can’t best ”Harry” domestically, it’s likely to be a much bigger hit in Europe, where the books of J.R.R. Tolkien are often required reading for high school students. ”With international receipts, this movie is going to make a load of money,” says Farasati. ”It would be a shame if it was considered a disappointment simply because it’s not another ‘Harry Potter’ here.” Just as long as it’s not another ”Dungeons & Dragons.”