A J.R.R. Tolkien dragon will torch the competition as "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" slithers into theaters this weekend.
The 3-D "Hobbit" sequel, starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, is expected to take in around $80 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys.
Directed by Peter Jackson, who made all three "Lord of the Rings" movies and last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the big-budget "Smaug" will easily unseat Walt Disney Pictures' 3D animated musical "Frozen" for the box office crown.
The first "Hobbit" movie opened with an $84.6-million haul and went on to make $303 million through its run in the U.S. and Canada -- and more than $1 billion worldwide. Not adjusting for inflation, the "Lord of the Rings" triology and "Unexpected Journey" have made more than $3.9 billion.
The new film, part of a triology based on the beloved Tolkien book, follows Baggins and Gandalf as they try to help a group of dwarves retake their homeland from the dragon Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.
The weekend's first box office runner-up is expected to be the latest comedy from the prolific producer Tyler Perry, in which he again stars as the over-the-top African American matriarch, Madea. Lionsgate's "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas" is expected to make close to $28 million in ticket sales through Sunday, on a budget of around $25 million.
If the movie's take matches that estimate, it would be in line with or better than the openings for several recent movies featuring the title character. The 2012 film "Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection" grossed $25.4 million in its first weekend. The franchise's biggest opener ever, "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail" debuted with $41 million in 2009.
"A Madea Christmas," which also stars Larry the Cable Guy, is Perry's eighth Madea movie with Lionsgate and his 16th film overall with the company.
This weekend will also see limited releases for a couple of highly anticipated movies.
"American Hustle," Sony Pictures' 1970s-set con man drama, will open in three theaters in Los Angeles and three in New York. The movie, which was directed by David O. Russell and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, has received rave reviews and is considered a top awards season contender. It received seven Golden Globe Awards nominations, including one for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy).
Also opening in a limited number of cinemas is Walt Disney Pictures' "Saving Mr. Banks," about the adaptation of "Mary Poppins" from the P.L. Travers book into the classic Disney film. It debuts in eight major cities Friday, with the studio hoping to generate strong word-of-mouth for the movie that cost $35 million.
[For the Record: An earlier version of this post misspelled Tyler Perry's name.]
Follow on Twitter: @rfaughnder