Europe gets in festive mood

Local pics vie with Hollywood fare

ROME — Hollywood openers contend with a multitude of strong local Christmas titles in a packed pre-holiday frame at the European box office.

U.S. pics launching day-and-date with the U.S. include Universal toon “The Tale of Despereaux,” bowing in Blighty and Spain, and Jim Carrey laffer “Yes Man,” also outing in Spain.

Meanwhile, Italo auds are finally getting “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” “Twilight” sinks its fangs into Blighty, and Sony’s Samuel L. Jackson highbrow thriller “Lakeview Terrace” sets it sights on Germany and Spain.

In Italy, the leadup to Christmas sees local laffers duke it out with “Escape 2 Africa.”

Italo auds traditionally turn out in droves for domestic comedies over the hols. This season’s two big offerings are “Christmas in Rio,” the 25th installment in a trashy franchise now etched in Italo pop history annals, going out on a massive 800 via Filmauro, and the slightly more sophisticated “Il Cosmo Sul Como,” featuring smash hit comic trio Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo, bowing on 650 via Medusa.

Meanwhile, the second “Madagascar” pic is launching on 690 via Universal with boffo prospects amid massive marketing and rave reviews. La Repubblica praised the toon sequel for “being more creative” and altogether “better than the original.”

By contrast, the prominent Italo daily excoriated Richard Gere and Diane Lane romancer “Nights in Rodanthe,” going out on 245 via Warner Bros., as “a typical example of our market being a dumping ground for American garbage.” Still, “Rodanthe” is expected to click, given that Gere is a big draw and Hollywood romancers usually find Italo fans this time of year.

Family fantasy “City of Ember” goes out on 150 via Eagle Pictures, with modest prospects for the Bill Murray and Tim Robbins pic, which Il Giornale called “a smarmy — not to mention boring — fable.”

Buena Vista Italy is outing “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” on 84 in a savvy counterprogramming move that should pay off given rave reviews across the board for Holocaust drama from a boy’s-eye view.

In the U.K., the big releases are “Twilight” and “The Tale of Despereaux,” which previewed last weekend. The pair enter a busy marketplace that is already bustling with holiday season fare, including “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Four Christmases.”

“Twilight” should do big biz thanks to Brit teen girls’ love for London-born topliner Robert Pattinson. News of the boffo U.S. bow has traveled across the Pond and Pattinson was mobbed by adoring fans at the U.K. premiere.

As was the case last weekend, Christmas shopping will keep some away from cinemas but the start of the school hols Friday means a weekend-on-weekend uptick is likely.

Dec. 26 sees a flood of high-profile openers, including Jim Carrey laffer “Yes Man,” Baz Luhrmann’s historical epic “Australia” and Disney’s “Bedtime Stories” enter the festive mix.

In Germany, Teutonic superstar multi-hyphenate Til Schweiger looks set to take the holiday box office by storm for the second year in a row with his whacky medieval comedy “1½ Knights — In Search of the Ravishing Princess Herzlinde.”

Unlike last year’s critically acclaimed “Keinohrhasen” —Schweiger’s modern-day romantic comedy, which was the biggest moneymaker of the past year — Warner Bros.’ “1½ Knights” is far more farcical, with a who’s who list of costumed local celebrities making cameo appearances.

“Kebabs, gays, Austrians and Angela Merkel are the basis for cheap laughs,” wrote Munich newspaper Muenchner Abenzeitung, while Leipziger Volkszeitung called “1½ Knights” “all-around fast-food fun.”

Pic, which has received mixed reviews, also faces powerful competition from “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” which continues to do boffo biz at Teutonic wickets.

For more refined tastes, Pandora releases Bent Hamer’s hit Norwegian Cannes screener “O’Horten,” while Arsenal rolls out Claude Miller’s French drama “A Secret.”

Universal is targeting the youth audience with teen comedy “Wild Child” as Sony spreads suburban fear with bigoted cop pic “Lakeview Terrace,” starring Samuel L. Jackson.

In Gaul, a local graphic novel and copious kiddie fare topped the box office in a relatively low-key launch day on Wednesday.

There were critical kudos galore for local helmer Jerome Salle’s high-voltage, big-budget adventure “Largo Winch.” But first-day returns of $539,000 on 486 for the adaptation of the cult graphic novels might have fallen short of Wild Bunch’s expectations.

Likewise, toon laffer “Igor” underwhelmed for TFM, with an opening take of $191,500 on 395. “We’re a bit disappointed, but school holidays start tonight. It’s out on a lot of screens, so we’re full of hope,” said marketing director Henri Ernst.

Other distribbers with younger auds on their minds might be feeling much the same. Finnish Santa and reindeer toon “Niko and the Way to the Stars” bowed at a paltry $188,260 on 372 via BAC.

And Pathe is probably waiting anxiously to see healthier returns this weekend for “The Children of Timpelbach.”

Toplining Gerard Depardieu and Carole Bouquet, the Christmas fable about a village run by children was met with mixed reviews.

“An excellent first effort, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam,” thought Paris Match of freshman helmer Nicolas Bary’s efforts.

“Amusing, if perhaps a bit too slick,” said Telerama. “Timpelbach” opened at $159,030 off 306.

In Spain, a slew of new releases aim to boost the pre-Christmas B.O. after it took a beating from a Barcelona vs. Real Madrid soccer match last weekend.

An optimistic atmosphere is in the air, despite the absence of an obvious holiday tentpole.

Maybe reviewers are trying to get in Santa’s good books too by being surprisingly generous for a change.

“The Tale of Despereaux,” which opens on 344 via UPI, was praised by monthly Fotogramas as “an excellent tale.”

“The movie will perform much better than many people think,” forecasts one booker.

“Changeling,” being released by UPI on 332, also went down well with the crix.

“Changeling” and “Desperaux” will contend for top spot, according to bookers.

“Eastwood hasn’t put a foot wrong in years,” opined La Vanguardia.

“Eastwood’s formidable talent makes this very long movie seem very short,” raved El Pais.

Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” punched above its weight in 2005, grossing $17.7 million.

Another marquee name with loyal followers in Spain is Jim Carrey.

Warner releases “Yes Man” on 298 with high expectations it will click with Spain’s family auds.

Other openings for the Spanish festive frame are Filmax tooner “Winx Club: The Secret of the Lost Kingdom,” Tripictures’ comedy “Four Christmases,” Sony’s “Lakeview Terrace,” and Alta’s culinary revenge drama “Estomago,” recent winner of the Golden Sprig at the 53rd Valladolid Intl. Film Festival.

“El Cant dels Ocells,” a fave on the fest circuit, goes out on just four prints.

Additional reporting by Archie Thomas (U.K.), Ed Meza (Germany), David Hayhurst (France) and Emilio Mayorga (Spain).

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