The question being pondered by many box-office analysts is: will the penguins, as the Beatles once claimed about themselves, become more popular than Jesus. The answer to that question will come when ticket receipts are counted for the animated penguin movie, Happy Feet, and the debuting religious-themed movie, The Nativity Story. Most analysts are betting on the penguins, forecasting that Happy Feetwill take in $17 million-20 million. They figure that Nativitywill collect $13-16 million. And they're forecasting a take of $15-17 million for the James Bond flick, Casino Royale.New Line Cinema, which is releasing Nativity,may have some difficulty coming up with an estimate on Sunday, since no one can be sure how many churchgoers will emerge from services and head for the multiplex. (Indeed, in many communities, multiplex operators set aside at least one screening room for Sunday church services.)


The congregation is pretty much divided equally over the artistic worth of The Nativity Story, although the critics appear to be less judgmental over it than they were over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.Actually neither side gets worked up one way or the other about it. A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes with little apparent enthusiasm: "Rather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism.." Gene Seymour in Newsdayseems to indicate that the producers of the film fashioned it to avoid the controversy that descended on Passion. "The intent seems to be to release a movie about the Nativity that can be shown in living rooms and church schools for at least the next decade. If that's really all that was wanted or needed from The Nativity Story, the result could have been a lot worse. But keep in mind: The events it depicts inspired Handel's 'Messiah.'" To many critics, it's like thousands of Christmas plays staged all over the world. Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionwrites: "There's no Passion-style violence, thankfully, but plenty of greeting-card sincerity and moral fortitude." Similarly, Rick Groen writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Don't expect a Caravaggio, but if your taste turns to Hallmark, this is a good bet." Still, other critics find the film about as boring as some Sunday school lectures. Lou Lumenick in the New York Postcalls it "a deadly dull, by-the-numbers rendition of the Nativity story. Even some of the many nuns at the screening I attended were shifting uncomfortably in their wimples." And Claudia Puig concludes in USA Today: "It's not exactly the dullest story ever told, but it's certainly not the greatest."


While critics could not get worked up over The Nativity Story, some are certainly passionate about the horror movie Turistas. For example, Manohla Dargis writes in the New York Times: "If stupidity were a crime, the nitwits in the cheap horror flick Turistas would be doing time in Attica." Chris Kaltenbach in the Baltimore Suncalls it "this study in knuckleheaded mayhem and exploitative, brain-dead filmmaking." Kyle Smith in the New York Postconcludes his review by remarking, "Turistashas mastered the international language: stupidity." But Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionsuggests that the film is not really meant to make sense. "Give Turistas the edgy, unnerving, graphically violent South American vacation movie full of sex-hungry young adults and horror, credit for knowing full well not only what kind of entertainment it is, but for delivering the goods," he writes. And Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirersays that "it gallops along with a suspenseful, dead-on sense of dread."


AOL plans to give away movies for one day only, on Saturday, February 2. The online service, which normally charges $10-25 per film, said it will provide 30 films online, including National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Spider-Man 2. Each user will be permitted to download one film, beginning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time.


Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian is leaving the company after 14 years to launch a rival firm, Media By Numbers, that will also track and analyze box-office results, he said Thursday. The new company also plans to analyze sales via home video and digital downloading.