Animation opens in Germany, France, U.K.

LONDON — “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” ramps up its staggered European release this weekend with key openings in major markets France, Germany and the U.K.

Cinema biz is likely to be particularly upbeat in Spain where “Twilight” and “Bolt” hit wickets, looking to take advantage of the long weekend, as Monday is a national holiday.

In Blighty, all eyes are on “Escape 2 Africa,” which is expected to open comfortably top. The toon previewed well last Saturday and Sunday ($3.5 million) and exhibs forecast it will net another $5.5 million in its opening three days. The original in the franchise was a solid hit in the U.K. and animated family fare tends to go well at this time of year in Blighty.

Of the other openers, “Transporter 3” is considered the most commercial prospect. Muscular Brit thesp Jason Statham may be oft-derided by the Brit crix but he has a growing following among action fans who lapped up “The Bank Job” earlier this year. A bow of just over $1 million is projected for the Icon release.

At arthouse wickets, Tilda Swinton starrer “Julia” should score a good screen average for distrib Chelsea Films. Oscar-winner Swinton is well-like by Brit arthouse auds and has been working the upmarket press to tub thump for “Julia.”

Of the holdovers, festive laffer “Four Christmases” is expected to go well again. Last weekend, the Vince Vaughn and Reece Witherspoon laffer considerably outstripped expectations with a boffo top spot opening and it has been holding well through the week, bookers report.

In France, Paramount release “Escape 2 Africa” got off to stunning day one start on Wednesday with $2.4 million, the fourth biggest bow of the year.

In the overcrowded Gallic also-ran department, “Agathe Clery” managed a debut of $503,600 on a large print run of 497 for Pathe. Helmer Etienne Chatiliez may have missed the mark with his acerbic laffer, toplining Valerie Lemercier as a racist high-flying businesswoman who suddenly turns black.

“An avalanche of cliches,” sniped Elle. “Chatiliez has lost his verve and his appealing insolence,” said Le Figaroscope.

Thriller “Pour Elle” earned rave reviews, but could manage only $246,800 on 272 for Mars. Debut feature helmer Fred Cavaye’s tale of a young family torn apart by a mother’s murder conviction was “energetically told and elegantly filmed” felt Premiere.

There were even slimmer pickings for Metropolitan, which certainly had higher hopes for Edward Norton/Colin Farrell cop thriller “Pride and Glory.” It took in only $96,480 on 193. “We’re quite disappointed. We were looking for an opening week of around 300,000 admissions, so we’re hoping the weekend might offer a big boost,” said sales exec Paul Robert.

In Germany, “Escape 2 Africa” looks nailed on to swipe top spot in its bow. The rest of the newbies aren’t generating a terrific amount of excitement.

WB release “Four Christmases” got a bland reception from the German press with Zitty Magazine calling it “a bit flat” and Tagesspiegel sighing, “yeah, well…” But pic has already shrugged off poor reviews to open top in the U.S. and U.K. With another slow week, some good star power, and a date-night audience obviously active — last week they turned out for “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” — “Four Christmases” could unwrap in the top five.

Woody Allen’s last three films have opened solidly in Germany and, with strong press support and not a lot of competition, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (Concorde) looks good for a mid top 10 bow.

Another beneficiary of the flat Teuton market could be remake “Quarantine” (Sony), which has found favor with youth-orientated crix like Kulthit.de and Stadtkind.

In Spain, bookers agree this holiday weekend should be one of the best of the year. With varied fare — there’s genre cinema, comedies, fantasy and animation on offer — and Constitution Day holiday falling conveniently this Monday, a boffo frame is likely. Biz is already hot — last weekend overall takings were $11 million.

Top of the pile is likely to be “Twilight,” which goes out on 492 via Aurum. Some industryites are tipping the vampire romancer to take a screen average of around $12,000: that would make it 2008’s biggest bow per print, unseating “Hancock.” Crix have been mixed but in general acknowledged its appeal to core auds. “’Twilight’ won’t go down in history but it will become part of pop culture’s own mini-history,” said El Pais.

Also bowing is “Bolt,” which opens on 442 via BVI. Family auds can choose from holdover “Escape 2 Africa,” Finnish hit “Christmas Story” (distribbed by Flins & Piniculas) and local tooner “Olentzero” (Barton Films).

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” bows on a moderate 85 via Notro, looking to satisfy adult female demo. “Pic is excellent and very suitable for this time of year. It’s no blockbuster, but it will show legs,” predicted a booker. Other stocking fillers include Karma’s epic “Mongol,” Sherlock Films’ romantic comedy “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” and Sony’s “Pineapple Express.”

In Italy, “Saw V” is the biggest opener in a crowded frame, which also sees the Italo bows of Danny Boyle’s awards season contender “Slumdog Millionaire” and Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

The fifth “Saw” installment goes out on 285 via RAI Cinema’s 01 Disribuzione arm with prospects of clicking with Italo teen males, but amid doubt it will oust “Twilight,” in its third frame, from the top spot.

Local laffer “Torno a vivere da solo” is the second-widest Italo bow, out on 210 via Eagle Pictures. Sequel of a popular 1980’s divorce-themed pic toplining original star Jerry Cala has decent prospects with the older Italo crowd.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is launching on 110 via Lucky Red boosted by raves — La Repubblica called it “a perfect example of global cinema.”

Anne Hathaway supernatural thriller “Passengers,” helmed by Rodrigo Garcia, goes out on 110 via Moviemax amid tepid reviews and minimal media notice.

In Italy’s arthouse arena, “Happy-Go-Lucky” launches on 66 via Mikado, Gallic auteur Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” with Catherine Deneuve, goes out on 40 via BIM, and Gallic coming-of-ager “Stella” bows on 15 via Nanni Moretti’s Sacher Distribuzione. All are boosted by critical kudos.

Additional reporting by David Hayhurst (France), Emilio Mayorga (Spain), Andrew Horn (Germany) and Nick Vivarelli (Italy).

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