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Besson toon fights holiday pic crunch

Film earned 7,200 admissions at REX theater on opening day

PARIS — As usual at this time of the year, Paris’ Grand Rex movie theater is hosting its run of pre-Christmas preems devoted to the latest big animation release.

In the past, the slot has always been taken by a Disney pic — “Chicken Little” last year, “The Incredibles” the year before that.

But this year, Luc Besson has slipped into Disney’s place at the high-profile cinema with “Arthur.”

The e65 million ($86 million) 3-D and live-action kidpic starring Mia Farrow and Freddie Highmore notched up more than 7,200 admissions at the theater on opening day, Nov. 29, putting it up there with the Rex’s best bows.

“The Lion King” holds the record with 10,000 admissions, while “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Pocahontas” garnered comparable ticket sales around the 7,000 mark.

Next week’s ticket sales will be boosted by French workers taking advantage of a holiday perk in which companies give movie tickets to employees and their children.

It’s early days yet — “Arthur” goes nationwide on a hefty 1,000 prints Dec. 13 — but excited Gallic exhibitors, who were treated to a preview screening at Besson’s Normandy chateau post-production facility two weeks ago, are hoping for more than 5 million admissions.

“We need a big end-of-the-year kids film, and there is a lot of optimism that this is it,” says Olivier Snanoudj, director of exhib org the French National Federation of Cinemas (FNCF).

“Arthur” has had plenty of pre-publicity. Ever the canny businessman, Besson struck promo tie-ins with French bank BNP and telecommunications provider Orange.

But more importantly, “Arthur” is familiar to French kids as the hero of four books penned by Besson that have sold 1 million copies.

Helping the film’s overseas rollout, they have been published in 34 languages. In the U.S., the Weinstein Co. will give the pic a limited release through MGM on Dec. 15.

Besson recently created more buzz around the film when he declared that, this, his 10th helming effort would be his last. But he seems to have gone back on that, saying that there will be sequels if “Arthur” is a hit — he has even set a date, June, for the second film to start shooting.

Besson never gets a free pass in France, and as might be expected, Gallic crix are not too enamored of “Arthur.”

Le Monde called it “the least personal, the most anonymous of all of Besson’s films.” The paper complained that Farrow’s dialogue, dubbed into French by Valerie Lemercier, was “so obvious that it is impossible to breathe life into it.”

But more worrisome to “Arthur” are the other animated films coming out this festive season. Besson will doubtless be hoping that “Flushed Away,” which opened Nov. 29 on 690 screens, will be just that in the next couple of weeks. Pic notched up a not-too-extravagant 86,600-odd ticket sales on its first day.

“Happy Feet” which opens Dec. 6, is expected to be tougher competition. Meanwhile younger kids may get taken instead to “Piccolo and Saxo,” a Gallic animated film about musical instruments, or “Franklin.”

In the best of cases, exhibitors are expecting this December to deliver more modest B.O. than the same month last year, when “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and “King Kong” had French families flocking to the movies.

Latest predictions suggest end of the year Gallic box office will be up 7% on 2005 to around 187 million admissions.