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

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2007

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.

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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.' "

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.