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"The Pursuit of Happyness"

_ There is never any doubt that Will Smith’s Chris Gardner will muddle though, that he’ll find a job, make some money, secure a home and achieve the elusive, intentionally misspelled state of the film’s title. After all, this is "inspired by a true story," and after all, this is Will Smith. They don’t make movies about homeless guys who remain homeless by the time the closing credits roll _ and if they do, they certainly don’t release them at Christmas.

It’s all predictable stuff. Yet Smith does make you root for him, because beneath that bad moustache and cheap suit he’s actually acting and not just playing the clown, something he hasn’t done in truly convincing fashion since 1993’s "Six Degrees of Separation."

The scenes in which he runs around San Francisco, seeking comfort and shelter for himself and his young son, have a convincing familiarity _ probably because that really is Smith’s son, seven-year-old Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, playing the part. And at its core "The Pursuit of Happyness" is a good story _ one that’s literally rags to riches, and didn’t need the many tweaks and embellishments that have been added.

_ Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

Will Smith’s ‘Pursuit’ pays off with $27 million No. 1 debut; ‘Eragon’ is No. 2

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Not even a dragon or the world’s most-beloved spider could deny Will Smith another first-place finish at the box office.

Sony’s father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Smith and his own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, debuted as the No. 1 movie with US$27 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

Smith’s latest topped 20th Century Fox’s dragon fantasy "Eragon," which opened in second place with $23.45 million, and Paramount’s children’s tale "Charlotte’s Web," which premiered a distant third with $12 million.

The previous weekend’s No. 1 movie, Mel Gibson’s Mayan saga "Apocalypto," fell to sixth place with $7.7 million, raising its 10-day total to $27.9 million.

The story of a struggling dad who becomes homeless along with his young son, "Pursuit of Happyness" joins a long line of No. 1 openings for Smith, including the action tales "Independence Day" and "I, Robot."

"Audiences around the world love him," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony, whose past hits with Smith include the "Men in Black" flicks and last year’s romantic comedy "Hitch."

"Everyone who sees Will Smith or meets Will Smith feels like he could be their best friend," Bruer said. "He has that type of charisma that resonates throughout whatever room he’s in."

Combining live action and computer animation, "Charlotte’s Web" had a soft opening despite an all-star voice cast including Julia Roberts, Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey in E.B. White’s classic about a spider that befriends a lonely pig.

Don Harris, executive vice-president of distribution at Paramount, said the studio hopes "Charlotte’s Web" will follow the pattern of other pre-Christmas family releases such as "Stuart Little" and "The Prince of Egypt," which opened in the same range but held on through the holidays to become hits.

"The movie has every chance to get to $100 million off of this opening," Harris said.

Paramount’s musical "Dreamgirls," starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson in an adaptation of the stage hit, opened to big numbers at three theatres in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Premiering with reserved seating and special programs at a premium ticket price of $25, the film took in $360,000, a healthy start to its nationwide release on Christmas.

George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s latest collaboration, "The Good German," debuted solidly with $78,572 at five theatres. Clooney stars with Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire in a black-and-white tale of murder and intrigue in Berlin just after Second World War .

Overall business was off, with the top 12 movies taking in $112.3 million, down 8.3 per cent compared to the same weekend last year, when two blockbusters, "King Kong" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," were Nos. 1 and 2.

This weekend’s holdover films retained strong audiences, though, a sign that many current movies may have a long shelf life, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.

"It’s hard to say this is a positive thing that this is a down weekend. But the strength of this weekend has been the holdovers," Dergarabedian said. "There is a lot of depth to the marketplace. It’s a direct reflection of audience satisfaction. That’s more important I think than beating last year’s competition."

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theatres, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.

1. "The Pursuit of Happyness," $27 million.

2. "Eragon," $23.45 million.

3. "Charlotte’s Web," $12 million.

4. "Happy Feet," $8.5 million.

5. "The Holiday," $8.2 million.

6. "Apocalypto," $7.7 million.

7. "Blood Diamond," $6.3 million.

8. "Casino Royale," $5.7 million.

9. "The Nativity Story," $4.7 million.

10. "Unaccompanied Minors," $3.7 million.