Joshua Rich
November 03, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

Boy, do I wish I were still a wee lad today. A weekend like this is catnip for our youngest film fans. The movie mavens have put dueling family flicks on the release slate — Paramount/DreamWorks’ Flushed Away and Disney’s The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause — giving the littlest citizens the run of the multiplex. But, from my point of view, that’s not all. See, I have to pick a winner between two family films, each opening in more than 3,000 venues, both with strong pedigrees, and I’m afraid of breaking my latest prediction hot streak with a box-office boo-boo. I want my mommy. Mommy! Make it better! Who’s going to be No. 1?

Ah, heck, I’m a big boy now. I can do this myself. Besides, I called my mom to see if she could help me here, but all she wanted to talk about was how Lost jumped the shark by killing off Eko. (By the way, anybody remember where the phrase ”jump the shark” originated? That’s right: at the University of Michigan, baby! Can you hear us knockin’, Buckeyes?)

I can make a strong case for both FA and TSC3:TEC finishing at No. 1. The former is a talking-animal pic from the wizards at Aardman who, after winning a number of Academy Awards for their claymation short films, broke into features in a big way with Chicken Run in 2000. That movie debuted with $17.5 mil and went on to earn $106.8 million domestically. Then, last year, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit premiered to strong reviews and a $16 mil gross before topping out at $56.1 mil. And FA, which is Aardman’s first all-CG movie, also has some very positive notices coming from critics. Now, critics may not be as kind to TSC3:TEC, but that shouldn’t matter too much: After all, what kid reads reviews? This film is the third installment in what’s been a super-strong franchise for Disney and star Tim Allen. The original Santa Clause debuted with $19.3 mil way back in 1994, and a $19.3 mil opening then was the equivalent of something like a $35 mil opening today. That movie went on to gross a huge $144.8 mil and it was followed in 2002 by The Santa Clause 2, which premiered with $29 mil and made $139 mil overall.

So which of these two strong contenders will win? It’s gonna be close. FA is the slightly higher-brow offering, and it’s filling the current animated-movie void left by Open Season, which is finally petering out after six weeks. But it’ll have to fight hard to beat TSC3:TEC, which is rated G and stars the biggest star of all. No, not Tim Allen. Santa himself. Remember, kids: Never underestimate the power of St. Nick to draw crowds to theaters (witness the success of everything from this franchise to Elf). He’ll be the deciding factor here. Come Sunday, FA will have $21 mil in the bank and TSC3:TEC will have $23 mil, and contented rugrats nationwide will feel like Christmas came early.

As for the rest of us, Saw III continues to slash its way through the box office. A 55 percent drop will put it at about $15 mil in its second week, meaning that it’ll beat out the weekend’s other major opener, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This flick, from Ali G creator Sacha Baron Cohen, is one of the year’s most anticipated satirical comedies?at least for me. Fact is, it’s not entirely clear how broad the audience is for B:CLOAFMBGNOK. Take my mom (please!). She may be a big fan of Lost (or, at least, she was) but I don’t think she’s been clamoring for this film. She may not have even heard of it. And she’s certainly not the only one. Thus, Fox recently downgraded its opening theater count from around 2,000 to just over 800. So what had looked like a big first-weekend winner now is just a big question mark. There is precedent for a movie with such a small release debuting at No. 1 (Fahrenheit 9/11 made $23.9 mil in 868 venues in 2004), but I think that’s a stretch here, especially given Santa and the talking animals. Rather, look for B:CLOAFMBGNOK to make $14 mil and check back here on Sunday for my full take on all matters regarding this fictional Kazakhstani interviewer and his love of fermented horse urine.

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