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''Compass'' will be golden

Despite bad buzz and controversy surrounding it, the new fantasy flick looks like a sure No. 1 at the box office this weekend

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We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty here, box office fans. It’s the final stretch of the year, which means that limited-release prestige movies (think Atonement, Grace Is Gone, and Juno) are starting to fill theaters, while some longer-playing holdovers (such as the National Board of Review’s best picture winner No Country for Old Men) are solidifying their places as awards-season contenders. Which is all well and good, but I’ve got some even better news for regular readers of this column: No more Thanksgiving puns, turkeys!

If that isn’t reason enough to celebrate, here’s another: For the second straight week, there’s just one new wide release, The Golden Compass — a.k.a. the latest entry into the Lord of the Rings/Chronicles of Narnia fantasy blockbuster genre. So while audiences will have plenty of options at the theater, my pick for No. 1 is easy. And for everyone who’s ready to click on over to EW.com’s Fall Box Office Challenge, consider that tip an early Christmas gift from me, your box office secret Santa.

THE (LIKELY) TOP FIVE

The Golden Compass
New Line · PG-13 · 3,528 theaters · NEW
The latest behemoth from the studio that brought you orcs and hobbits and all that jargon that I still can’t decipher is a sure winner. It’s based on a hugely popular fantasy book from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s geared to kick-start a new Harry Potter-esque series of films. It features big stars like Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It’s on the cover of this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly (with a terrific feature article by my homey from three doors down, Jeff Jensen). It’s gonna be huge. But wait. To quote the immortal words of Lee Corso, ”Not so fast, my friends!” There are all sorts of pitfalls here, and that’s why I’m low-balling my estimate. For starters, as much as anybody may be inclined to compare The Golden Compass to The Lord of the Rings or whatever, it’s simply no The Lord of the Rings or whatever. To quote the immortal words of Lloyd Bentsen…ah, you get the point. But besides a substantial downgrade in popularity, there are other concerns. There’s that possible backlash from Christian groups who find Pullman’s books to be opposed to religion. There’s the fact that the movie did only moderately well in sneak previews last weekend. There’s The Invasion, Kidman and Craig’s last costarring effort, which utterly bombed over the summer, banking just $15.1 mil. There are the poor reviews. I could go on, but won’t because, well, maybe I’m wrong. All I’m saying is that, for a variety of reasons, sometimes what looks good on paper can wind up being a total dud. Trust me, I know: I’m a Michigan football fan.
Weekend prediction: $28 million

Enchanted
Walt Disney · PG · 3,520 theaters · 3rd weekend
Something tells me that there are a lot of women out there who wish that this Patrick Dempsey fairy tale were the movie that has been in 3-D at the multiplex, rather than Beowulf.
Weekend prediction: $10 million

Beowulf
Paramount · PG-13 · 2,976 theaters · 4th weekend
What’s up with that Scottish accent, anyway?
Weekend prediction: $5 million

This Christmas
Screen Gems · PG-13 · 1,879 theaters · 3rd weekend
The domestic dramedy should pass the $40 mil barrier this weekend. When is $40 mil a good gross? When the movie only cost a reported $13 mil. Impressive, indeed.
Weekend prediction: $4 million

Hitman
Fox · R · 2,418 theaters · 3rd weekend
You know what? I’m not gonna lie: I’m not sure I know a single person who’s seen this movie. You?
Weekend prediction: $3 million