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''Cars'' will stay ahead of the pack

Joshua Rich’s weekend prediction: Five new movies won’t keep ”Cars” from No. 1 again

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No time for me to goof off this time around — I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me: Hollywood is throwing four new wide releases at us this weekend, and it’s going to be a tough fight for… No. 2. That’s right, Cars will repeat as box office champ. So let’s just go through the five major movies you’ll have to choose from at the multiplex, shall we?

Even after its soft-ish $60.1 million opening last weekend, Disney/Pixar’s Cars has played strongly through the week, adding in excess of $20 mil and drawing more and more kids as schools let out. DisPix movies always come with very long legs — The Incredibles and Finding Nemo each dropped less than 35 percent in their second weekends — and this flick will be no exception. Of course, there is a tad more kiddie competition this time around, so I see a 40 percent drop, which will land Cars in the winner’s circle with a very respectable $36 mil.

Paramount’s Nacho Libre opens in 3,070 theaters with strong buzz due to its comedy pedigree: star Jack Black and the filmmakers behind Napoleon Dynamite. The big question here is whether the Mexican-wrestling farce can overcome poor reviews (as of Thursday, it’s running a feeble 45 percent ”fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com) and draw folks beyond the college crowd. It’s a tall order — like, I don’t think dear Mom, hip as she is, would ever consider seeing this film — but there is precedent for a strong showing. Black’s last major comedy, School of Rock, bowed to $19.6 mil in 2003. Combine that with the whole nutty Napoleon Dynamite phenomenon, and we’re looking at a $25 mil premiere.

Universal’s 3 Fast 3 Furious… I’m sorry, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift opens in 3,026 venues sans the stars that made the first two installments of the supercharged street-racing series smashes: Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. But c’mon, what does that matter? I mean, it doesn’t even matter what the title is (I dunno, I kinda like my idea), what critics say, or whether only men will go. Movies like this have a sort of built-in fanbase. Those folks helped The Fast and the Furious open with $40.1 mil in 2001 and 2 Fast 2 Furious debut with $50.3 mil in 2003. But this sequel will get caught up amid the biggest opening-weekend traffic jam of the summer, and that loyal crowd will steer it to only $22 mil.

The ladies, meanwhile, will swarm Warner Bros.’ The Lake House, playing in 2,645 locations. It stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves as folks who exchange letters through time. Or something. Now, I’ve gotta say that I haven’t heard very good things about this movie, and it’s getting a dismal 31 percent ”fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com. But it’s the only serious romance out there (The Break-Up may be less funny than you’d expect, but it’s still a comedy), and sappy movies like this tend warm hearts in the warm summer — you know, The Notebook, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, etc. The star power is pretty strong here, too. Bullock remains one of the few actors with solid appeal from coast to coast, and Reeves always does better than expected in romantic roles (think Something’s Gotta Give). A $17 mil bow is in its future.

Finally, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, from Fox, premieres in 2,945 theaters, and you just know that it’s going to be huge among all the pre-verbal tots who are sure to be amused by the pun in the title. Among everyone else (and competing against Cars and Nacho Libre, which will draw families by the droves)? Not so hot — $10 mil. But I’m just being catty.