At theaters in 2007, the year of the 'threequel'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 2007, theater marquees will be dominated by a particular numeral, thanks to a release schedule that includes Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Shrek 3, Ocean's 13, Bourne 3, Rush Hour 3.

Three's company? More like a crowd. Especially come the month of May, when a web-slinging superhero, a dandy pirate, and a green ogre all compete for the family entertainment dollar.

"You've got sequels to 'Spider-Man,' 'Pirates,' and 'Shrek' opening within four weeks of each other," says Timothy Gray, editor of Variety, a weekly magazine for the entertainment industry. "I was asking someone, 'It's like a game of chicken – don't you think one of them is going to move?' And he said, 'I don't think they can. They've set these dates. They've lined up all the merchandising.' "

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This may be the year of the threequel, but not all the franchises will be successful, predicts Mr. Gray.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is likely to reap the most booty. The previous film ended with Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) being swallowed by a sea monster, but expect Sparrow to make the most audacious comeback since Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The second "Pirates" joins "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings" as the third movie ever to gross more than $1 billion worldwide. Can the next installment match it?

The challenge sequels face, Gray says, is that if they re-create the experience of the previous movie, then audiences may feel that they've "been there, done that." One alternative is to try a new approach that might not include the ingredients that made the recipe a success in the first place. Case in point: Ocean's Thirteen. Its predecessor, "Ocean's Twelve," tried a fresh approach by dispatching the heist gang to Europe for a story that included the meta twist of Julia Roberts playing a character who impersonates Julia Roberts. But viewers yin-yanged into love it/loathe it camps.

"Ocean's Thirteen" safely returns to Las Vegas and once again boasts the cinematic equivalent of the New York Yankees starting lineup: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. Roberts is missing this time around – unlike The Yankees, this franchise probably has salary caps – but the film boasts Al Pacino as the braggart who owns the casino targeted for a heist.

In August, Damon returns to Europe for more cat-and-mouse adventures in The Bourne Ultimatum, the third adaptation of Robert Ludlum's series about a spy who can turn a rolled-up magazine into a lethal weapon. (The challenge is on, 007 – let's see what you can do with a cocktail swizzle stick.)

Much of 2007's blockbuster slate consists of much less earthbound fare. Harry Potter gets back on his broom for The Order of the Phoenix, the most anticipated of several fantasy novels coming to life on the big screen. This year, the genre is big on villainesses. His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's dark, philosophical, and John Milton-like series, pits a young heroine against the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) in an alternative England (one populated by a talking polar bear; pretty sure there weren't any of those in "Paradise Lost") where a playmate has been kidnapped by an organization that conducts magical experiments on children.

Stardust also features a young hero on a voyage through an ethereal world. His quest involves finding a fallen star that has been transformed into a beautiful girl. An obstacle comes in the form of an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who also desires the star so as to become young again. Peter O'Toole, Sienna Miller, Claire Danes, and Robert De Niro also take part in this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel. Gaiman, meanwhile, co-wrote the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis's take on Beowulf, the 1,000-year-old epic poem chronicling the defeat of the monster Grendel. Angelina Jolie plays a medieval femme fatale in the pre- Thanksgiving release.

Jolie's other high-profile role this year is the filmed memoir A Mighty Heart. She portrays Mariane Pearl, wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan. Geopolitical violence also figures prominently in The Kite Runner, an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's perennial bestseller about two estranged childhood friends whose paths cross again in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Another heavyweight literary work getting the big-screen treatment is Ian McEwan's Atonement. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley star in the story which begins in 1935, when a young girl falsely accuses a young man of raping a cousin, then picks up five years later when the boy is released from prison to fight in the battle of Dunkirk. The young girl and her older sister serve as nurses tending to the wounded. Can the girl atone for her deed?

The Nanny Diaries, based on the novel by former caretakers Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, could be this year's "The Devil Wears Prada." In Upper-East Side Manhattan, a family nanny (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself juggling increasingly challenging tasks from her demanding employer, Mrs. X (Laura Linney). Johansson also stars alongside Natalie Portman in the Tudor-era drama The Other Boleyn Girl, originally written by Philippa Gregory.

Though not strictly a book adaptation, There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as an oilman at the dawn of the last century, was inspired by muck-raking journalist Upton Sinclair's novel, "Oil!"

If "Brokeback Mountain" was "the gay cowboy movie," then one film is destined to become known as "the gay firefighter movie." I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is, however, a comedy. Adam Sandler and Kevin James play heterosexual Philadelphia firemen who pretend to be a gay couple to qualify for domestic-partner benefits. Blades of Glory features another unlikely duo. Will Ferrell and Jon Heder ("Napoleon Dynamite") play rival figure skaters – think Kerrigan/Harding, but waaaay more catty – who team up to skate in the pairs competition.

Evan Almighty, a spinoff of "Bruce Almighty," finds God (Morgan Freeman) telling congressman Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) to start building an ark in advance of a massive flood. Explaining this one to Mrs. Baxter could get him banned from watching "Field of Dreams" for life. The effects heavy "Evan Almighty" – let's just call it "Builders of the Last Ark" – is the most expensive comedy ever made, reportedly costing over $160 million in production costs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Simpsons Movie is summer's most high-profile comedy. Sideshow Bob is in it. So is Erin Brockovich. That's about all that anyone knows about the long-planned movie, which is credited to no less than 15 writers. Sure to make plenty of Doh!

Last year, more than a dozen family-oriented computer-animation movies jostled for attention at the multiplex. Most flopped. Even so, such films are incredibly lucrative ventures for Hollywood – "Cars," "Happy Feet," "Over the Hedge," and "Ice Age 2" all ended up in the Top-10 grossing movies of 2006. This year's entries range from a story about ugly green heroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to, well, a tale about an ugly green antihero, Shrek the Third.

This summer's Pixar feature, Ratatouille, by Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "The Iron Giant"), is about a Parisian rodent who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef. Later in the year, Jerry Seinfeld voices a bee who is incensed to discover that humans harvest honey in Bee Movie.

Finally, Surf's Up is the third movie in as many years about penguins. There's no escaping the number three in 2007.

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