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''Night at the Museum'': No. 1 again

Ben Stiller’s comedy is close to surpassing the domestic take of ”Meet the Parents,” and December holdovers mostly outperform 2007’s first new releases

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Night at the Museum
Night at the Museum: Rhythm & Hues

The calendar may say that we’re in a new year, but it still smells like 2006 at the box office. As expected, the first weekend of 2007 was dominated by a number of December releases.

Night at the Museum earned $24 million to take top prize for the third consecutive week. According to big bad Brandon at Nielsen EDI, NATM is the first Fox movie since everybody’s favorite 143-minute FedEx ad, Cast Away, to be a champ three straight times. And with a cumulative gross of $164.1 mil and counting, it’ll pass Meet the Parents ($166.2 mil) as Ben Stiller’s fourth-best domestic earner by mid-week — following Meet the Fockers ($279.3 mil), Madagascar ($193.6 mil), and There’s Something About Mary ($176.5 mil). Which raises the question: When are we going to start ranking Stiller in the same lofty class as A-plus-list stars like Hanks and Cruise? I mean, the math doesn’t lie. Since the year 2000, Stiller’s cumulative domestic box office gross is $1.274 billion, compared with $1.028 billion for Cruise and $1.014 billion for Hanks. Seems about time to give old Ben some major props.

Speaking of A-plus-listers, Will Smith, arguably the biggest star on the planet, continues to build his impressive C.V. In its fourth week, The Pursuit of Happyness finished a strong No. 2, with $13 mil. At a total of $124.2 mil, TPOH is Big Willie’s eighth-highest domestic grosser ever, and it should pass Bad Boys II ($138.6 mil) in the next week or so. It was followed at No. 3 by Children of Men, which expanded to 1,209 theaters and earned a solid $10.3 mil.

Buoyed by decent reviews (it scored a decent 64 out of 100 on Metacritic.com) and a terrific A CinemaScore mark from audiences, Hilary Swank’s inspirational-teacher drama Freedom Writers (No. 4) led all new releases with a pretty good $9.7 mil. That was enough for it to edge out scrappy medium-release player Dreamgirls (No. 5 with $8.8 mil), which has tallied $54.5 mil in no more than 852 venues over four weeks. Beyoncé & Co. may just rise to the top of the charts when their Broadway musical adaptation expands to some 1,800 theaters next weekend.

Outside of the top five, however, there was little to sing and dance about for the new kids on the screen. The first cartoon feature of 2007, Happily N’Ever After, un’derperformed at No. 6, with a weak $6.8 mil and a d’eadly C C’inemaScore. Cedric the Entertainer’s Code Name: The Cleaner missed the top 10 altogether, earning just $4.6 mil for 11th place. And the horror flick Thr3e scared up a mere $740,000 in 458 locations.

Nope, the good tidings were saved for this week’s multiplex veterans. The unheralded Rocky Balboa continued its surprisingly strong run by bringing its three-week total to $60.9 mil; Sylvester Stallone’s boxing rehash is the certifiable lightweight champion of the winter box office. And wouldn’t you know that, at $159.9 mil, Casino Royale now stands just $1 mil away from passing Die Another Day as the highest-earning James Bond flick ever in the U.S.

Add that to what party-animal Paul at Media by Numbers says was a nice 2 percent increase over a year ago, and I think it’s safe to say that, even though it has yet to produce any hits of its own, 2007 has started off — you guessed it — positively shaken and stirred.