In the battle of the superstars: Adam Sandler vs. Tom Cruise vs. Brad Pitt vs. Will Smith, the first round goes to…the cute Labrador dog?

Studio tracking services showed that interest was high particularly among females for 20th Century Fox’s dramedy “Marley & Me,” but Sandler’s more family-friendly “Bedtime Stories” was expected to easily beat it.  Instead, an all around boffo Christmas day box office found “Marley & Me” in the pole position with a whopping $14.6 million and “Bedtime” hoping to make up ground over the weekend. 

The impressive “Marley” result has to be music to Fox’s ears after a horriblly dissapointing year.  Not only is the picture the biggest hit for Jennifer Anniston since 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” it proves audiences are willing to welcome back her co-star, the personally troubled Owen Wilson, with open arms.  Of course, the TV spots filled with one of the film’s Labrador puppies popping out of a Christmas gift box didn’t hurt either.  At this point, “Marley” is projecting for a four-day weekend north of $50 million.

Even more surprising, and no doubt gratifying to Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, was the excellent take for David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The opus came in second with $11.7 million, remarkable considering it’s 2 hours and 45 minute running time.  After this weekend’s results, the Oscar hopeful will solidify its chances at a best picture nomination and possible win.  It should enter next week with approximately $40 million.

Disney’s “Stories” was third with $10.3 million, but the film should have a big jump on Friday when more families and kids traditionally head to the multiplex over the long holiday weekend. The Adam Shankman directed comedy should be ahead of Button” by Sunday and theoretically still challenge “Marley” for the top spot. Anywhere from $45-$50 is possible at this point which is actually a typical showing for a Sandler comedy.

Also, a tremendous shout out has to go to the new MGM marketing team. Headed by Mike Volleman and consultant Terry Press, the crew turned around a sinking ship in the Bryan Singer thriller “Valkyrie” and may be credited years from now for saving star Tom Cruise’s career.  The Nazi-themed drama was well on its way to being another Cruise bomb in the vein of last year’s “Lions for Lambs,” but instead opened to a fantastic $8.3 million and could do $30 million or more this weekend.  If the picture ultimately tops out anywhere over $70 million it will be a huge success for the rebuilding lion.

As for previous releases, last weekend’s top film, Jim Carrey’s “Yes Man” dropped to number five with almost $6 million in a close contest with the Will Smith melodrama “Seven Pounds,” which raked in $4.7 million.  It will take a miracle for “Pounds” to become Smith’s ninth movie to gross over $100 million and shows that Smith’s star power isn’t infallible.

The only major lump of coal this holiday had to be Liongate’s “The Spirit.” As expected, the first picture directed solely by acclaimed comic-book artist and writer Frank Miller, “Spirit” arrived dead on arrival with only $3.8 million.  At best, the critically panned picture is looking at no more than $14 million for the weekend. 

Look for more updates on the holiday box office tomorrow on HitFix.

Complete results according to Box Office Mojo are below:

1. “Marley & Me” $14.6 million
2. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” $11.7 million
3. “Bedtime Stories” $10.3 million
4. “Valkyrie” $8.3 million
5. “Yes Man” $5.9 million, $33.1 million to date
6. “Seven Pounds” $4.7 million, $25.6 million to date
7. “The Spirit” $3.5 million
8.  “The Day the Earth Stood Still” $2.65 million, $55.7 to date
9. “Four Christmases,” $2.28 million, $106.8 million to date
10.  “The Tale of Despereaux,” $1.97 million, $18.5 to date