DECK THE (MOVIE) HALLS WITH PENGUINS

It was beginning to look a lot like Penguinmas as Warner Bros.' animated Happy Feet topped the box office for the third week in a row, earning an estimated $17 million to bring its total after 17 days to $121 million. The Nativity Story, the biblical tale that was expected to give the penguin cartoon its only major competition turned in what Daily Variety charitably called a "meek" performance, earning only $8 million -- less than 10 percent of what Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ earned during its first weekend (although, to be fair, no one had expected Nativity even to come close to duplicate the success of Passion). Not only didn't it inherit the Earth, it didn't even inherit middle America, based on initial figures, which are based on actual receipts for Friday and Saturday but only a guess for Sunday. (The film was expected to attract Sunday church-goers, many of whom are not regular movie patrons, but snowstorms in the Midwest kept even many churchgoers at home.) On the other hand, James Bond remained a force to be reckoned with as Casino Royale remained in second place with about $15.1 million. The weekend's other films debuting in wide release, Turistas and Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, each tanked, with Turistas, a horror flick that picked up some unexpectedly decent reviews, earning just $3.5 million, while Van Wilder earned an even tamer $2.3 million.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. Happy Feet, $17.05 million; 2. Casino Royale, $15.1 million; 3. Déjà Vu, $11 million; 4. The Nativity Story, $8 million; 5. Deck the Halls, $6.6 million; 6. The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, $5 million; 7. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, $4.8 million; 8. Turistas, $3.5 million; 9. Stranger Than Fiction, $3.4 million; 10. National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, $2.3 million.

CASINO ROYALE IS BIG WINNER OVERSEAS

Casino Royale remained golden overseas, raking in a huge $44.7 million, according to Daily Variety, which put its overseas gross just shy of $200 million (at $196.5 million). As expected, given its pedigree, the film has been a big winner in the U.K. where it took in $10.4 million on 992 screens, bringing its total in that country to $71 million after two weeks. By contrast, The Nativity Story proved to be a bigger disappointment overseas than it was in the U.S. Even predominantly Catholic countries shunned it, including Spain, where it took in just $250,000 on 210 screens and Mexico, where it managed only $150,000 in 199.

THE RETURN OF MEL GIBSON

Mel Gibson has apparently been successful in his public efforts to redeem himself among his core fans. According to L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke, his Apocalypto, which opens next weekend, is tracking stronger than the thriller Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, both of which open on Friday. In her online Deadline Hollywood website, Finke wrote: "This is exactly what Disney, the distributor of Mel's Mayan epic, was hoping for: that his The Passion of the Christ audience would reward him with their moviegoing loyalty (and not hold his drunken anti-Semitic ranting against him). If even a third of the Passion audience turns out for Apocalypto, it will pay off at the box office. Meanwhile, Sunday's Los Angeles Times reported that Gibson was so spendthrift during the production of the film that on some occasions, a thousand extras would arrive at 1:00 a.m. to be costumed and made up elaborately for filming that began eight hours later, only to learn that Gibson was filming with his leads and that they wouldn't be needed. "Extras are so cheap [in Mexico] and Gibson's so rich from Passion of the Christ it didn't matter," an unnamed department head told the Times.

CARTOONS MAKE A COMEBACK

Cartoon shorts, once a staple of movie shows (they gradually faded away following the advance of television in the 1950s), are being revived by the Walt Disney Co. under the prodding of Pixar's John Lasseter, the New York Times reported Sunday. Disney producer Don Hahn told the newspaper, "Shorts have always been a wellspring of techniques, ideas and young talent. It's exactly what Walt did, because it's a new studio now, with new talent coming up -- as it should. I think the shorts program can really grow this studio." The new cartoons will be screened with Disney films, Hahn said. ""You pay your 10 bucks to see a movie," he remarked, "and you get a surprise you hadn't counted on."

EXCISED BORAT SCENE APPEARS ON YOUTUBE

A scene shot for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was removed after a sheriff's deputy working at the Imperial County, California jail figured that he and his colleagues were part of a ruse and ordered Sacha Baron Cohen and his crew out, according to today's (Monday) Los Angeles Times. In the footage, as Borat is being shown the jail, he remarks, "I like-a this place. ... Very nice. When you make all the mens do a pyramid, can I be on top?" (A reference to the infamous Abu Ghraib photo.) Sheriff Harold Carter later threatened to sue if the scene was included in the movie. While it did not make the final cut of the movie, the excised scene has been uploaded on YouTube, the Times said.

Brian B.