Head To Head

It's 'Narnia' vs. 'King Kong' as Hollywood throws two holiday heavyweights at a box-office slump.


Which is stronger, a messianic lion or a 25-foot gorilla?

Audiences will strike the final blow in that battle, as Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong goes up against Disney's screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a battle for America's filmgoing dollar. With a little luck, the winner will help pull Hollywood out of its year-long box-office doldrums.

The major studios have a lot more than usual riding on this Christmas. As always, they'll be rolling out their prestige pictures, the ones they hope will serve as Oscar bait and help them land a bunch of the golden statues when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands them out March 5. But this year, studio heads are praying for some big-time dollar signs to go with the glowing reviews, as Hollywood hopes to end with a financial flourish big enough to partially offset a 6 percent drop in box-office receipts compared to last year.

And the big boys among this season's potential blockbusters are a pair of kingly beasts, indeed. Narnia, Disney's $150-million fable of a magical kingdom in danger of being taken over by an evil witch (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), will hit screens Dec. 9. To the rescue come four children, who find their way to Narnia through a portal hidden within their bedroom wardrobe and team up with a lion named Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) to save the world.

Beloved by generations, revered by many for Lewis' frequent use of Christian symbolism and theology (one reason Disney is marketing heavily to churches), Lewis' seven-volume series has been a Hollywood dream project for decades; though adapted several times for television, this marks the books' first appearance in theaters. Advances in computer-generated special effects should help the translation from page to screen, while the $3 billion worldwide box-office success of the similarly fantastic Lord of the Rings trilogy doubtless spurred Disney to sign on.

Narnia has five days to establish a box-office beachhead before King Kong, Jackson's $220-million remake of the classic (and iconic) 1933 love story pairing a heartsick ape and an unwilling blonde, roars into theaters. Fresh off the multiple Oscars he collected for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson is putting his own dream project into theaters - he's been quoted as swearing the original Kong was the film that convinced him, as a 9-year-old, that his future lay in directing.

Instead of Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong, the new Kong stars Naomi Watts as love interest Ann Darrow; Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll, Kong's human rival for Ann's affections; and Jack Black as Carl Denham, the motion-picture director determined to exploit the lovelorn ape.

Perhaps a nervous Hollywood should take heart: Kong has past experience in being a lifesaver. When the original film opened, its studio, RKO Radio Pictures, was on the brink of bankruptcy. More than a million dollars later, the big ape had saved the day, keeping the studio viable and making possible all manner of future RKO releases, everything from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat to Cary Grant in Gunga Din to what many consider the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane.

In case the big guys should falter, however, Hollywood has plenty of films available to pick up the slack. Among the other prestige pictures being thrown into the Oscar mix are the filmed-largely-in-Baltimore Syriana (Dec. 9), with George Clooney as a CIA operative during the first Iraq war; Memoirs of a Geisha (Dec. 23), the long-awaited adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel about female servitude in Japan and Munich (Dec. 23), Steven Spielberg's take on the massacre of the Israeli Olympians competing at Munich in 1972. There's also Rumor Has It (Dec. 25), with Jennifer Aniston as a woman convinced she's the offspring of the May-December romance made famous in The Graduate and The Producers (Dec. 25), with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprising their stage roles as duplicitous Broadway impresarios in Mel Brooks' musical version of his 1968 comedy.

As has become the norm, the season will be rife with retreads of past box-office successes, or at least of films that directors and studio executives remember fondly. The prize for most determined retread goes to Cheaper By the Dozen 2 (Dec. 21), starring Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Piper Perabo and Hilary Duff in the sequel to last year's Cheaper by the Dozen, which was a remake of the 1950 film about a New England family with 12 kids.

Also being resurrected is Fun With Dick and Jane (Dec. 21), originally done in 1977 with George Segal and Jane Fonda as the upper-class couple who respond to a downturn in their fortunes by resorting to a life of crime; this go-round, Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni play the resourceful couple.

What follows is a rundown of the movies scheduled to open in Baltimore between now and early January. As always, please keep in mind that release dates can, and often do, change.


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