Joshua Rich
December 01, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet and Sony’s Casino Royale will duke it out for No. 1 for the third straight weekend, besting three new wide releases along the way.

Just like politics, the box office sometimes makes strange bedfellows, and, indeed, the talking penguins and James Bond have had a fascinating two-week tango during which they’ve been neck and neck with each other while beating out all comers. When you think about it, these movies are very much the perfect pair, because they don’t overlap much in terms of audience, yet together they share a lot of momentum: family friendly Happy Feet dances during weekend afternoons, while older skewing Casino Royale is a killer at night. A 40 percent drop will bring the birds in at No. 1 with $22 mil and land 007 at No. 2 with $18 mil.

Those totals should be plenty to pass the weekend’s biggest premiere, New Line?s The Nativity Story, opening wide in 3,183 theaters. This telling of the birth of Christ stars recent Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Advance reaction, however, has been mixed. Many critics have given the movie a thumbs down (EW’s Owen Gleiberman gives the movie a C-). But in one of the more grandiose publicity maneuvers in recent memory, New Line actually premiered this movie at the Holy See last weekend, and the studio reports that the Vatican?s Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, gave it a big thumbs up.

Anyway, the pivotal question here is whether Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby had it right when he argued that the baby Jesus is better than the grownup Jesus. That could be a bit of a stretch, box office-wise, considering that the grownup Jesus garnered some of the biggest numbers in history, with The Passion of the Christ a few years ago. The Nativity Story is also a pretty faithful telling of a Biblical tale, sure, but the buzz and huge groundswell of support for it just isn’t there — at least outside of Rome. It’ll earn $16 mil.

Still, the baby Jesus will prove to be more popular than the rascally kids in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, which MGM is releasing in 1,979 venues. Watch for it to gross $7 mil. Same goes for the randy kids in the bikini-horror flick Turistas, which, in 1,570 locations, will give upstart genre label Fox Atomic just a small amount — about $5 mil worth — of frankincense and myrrh.

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