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Eddie Murphy Zaps 'Cat' at Box Office

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Eddie Murphy scared "The Cat" from the top slot at the North American box office as three family films fought a close battle for honors during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, Murphy's "The Haunted Mansion," a comedy based on a Disneyland attraction, earned $25.3 million in the three days since Nov. 28 -- about $2.3 million lower than the opening for his previous film, "Daddy Day Care," in May.

Incumbent champion "The Cat in the Hat," starring Mike Myers, followed close behind with $24.7 million in its second weekend as the total for the critically reviled Dr. Seuss adaptation rose to $77 million.

The acclaimed fall sleeper hit "Elf," starring Will Ferrell, held steady at No. 3 with $22.2 million in its fourth weekend. Its total rose to $130.1 million.

Coincidentally, Murphy, Myers and Ferrell all got their big breaks as cast members of veteran sketch-comedy TV show "Saturday Night Live."

Executives at some rival studios estimated that "The Cat in the Hat" actually beat "The Haunted Mansion," although there was no disagreement between the films' distributors, Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures, respectively. Final data will be issued on Monday.

Walt Disney Pictures is a unit of Walt Disney Co . Universal Pictures is a unit of Vivendi Universal SA . "Elf" was released by New Line Cinema, a unit of Time Warner Inc .

Along with three other movies, "The Haunted Mansion" opened on Wednesday to get a jump-start on the holiday. The film's five-day total stands at $35 million, the eighth-best Thanksgiving opener ever, said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic theatrical distribution.

Also opening were "Bad Santa," a dark comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton, at No. 6 with a surprisingly strong $12.5 million for the three-day weekend ($16.8 million, five days); "The Missing," a Western starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, at No. 7 with a solid $11.7 million ($16.5 million, five days), and the time-travel saga "Timeline" at No. 8 with a below-par $8.5 million ($12.6 million, five days).

"Bad Santa" was released by Dimension Films, the genre arm of Disney's Miramax Films. "The Missing" was released by Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp . "Timeline" was released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc .

Overall ticket sales were strong, propelling the five-day Thanksgiving period to the No. 2 slot in the record books, according to box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

The top 12 films grossed $209.5 million, an 8 percent improvement over last year. The Thanksgiving record of $232 million was set in 2000, when another Seuss adaptation, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," starring Jim Carrey, was tops.

Rounding out this weekend's top five were two films that tied at No. 4 with $12.7 million each for the three-day period, Russell Crowe's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and Halle Berry's "Gothika."

"Master and Commander," a naval epic starring Crowe as a ponytailed captain, has sailed to $67.5 million after three weekends. "Gothika," a low-budget horror also starring Robert Downey Jr., has earned $41.1 million in two weekends.

"Master and Commander" was released in North America by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group Inc . "Gothika" was released by Time Warner's Warner Bros. Pictures, which is expected to take the crown next weekend when it releases "The Last Samurai," starring Tom Cruise.

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