"The Nativity Story" debuted at No. 4 raking in $8 million but opening weekend sales were lower than what distributor New Line Cinema expected.
"Happy Feet" and "Casino Royale" topped the box office with $17 million and $15.1 million, respectively, for a third weekend while "Deja Vu" came in third selling $11 million worth of tickets.
Meanwhile, New Line's production, also dubbed the prequel to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," fell below the $12 to $15 million range that industry observers predicted and well below The Passion's debut sales of $83.8 million. New Line blamed storms in the South and Midwest as hurting the film, according to USA Today.
"The Nativity Story" is Hollywood's most talked about faith-based film since Gibson's Passion. It made a historic world premiere at the Vatican, becoming the first ever feature film to debut there. Vatican officials and Christian leaders gave a stamp of approval for the film's depiction of Christ's birth and praised its universal message.
The approval from religious leaders was crucial. Director Catherine Hardwicke wanted to do a more uniting movie than Gibson's film of Christ's death.
"There were some things he did that maybe were a little controversial," said Hardwicke about Gibson and The Passion. "We wanted our film to be uniting and make the public see the similarities between religions instead of the differences."
Some critics, however, felt the filmmakers were playing it too safe.
"It's a handsome production," said a review by Seattle Post Intelligencer. "On the other hand, the filmmakers are playing it so safe that there's no surprise or energy to the production, and it's so eager to avoid any religious hysteria that it just doesn't convey any passion or much conviction."
Others praised the very aspect that was criticized.
"Rather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism," said a New York Times review.
The Times reviewer compared the Christian film to "a Hollywood version of the kind of Christmas production some of the 'Peanuts' kids put on in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'"
"This is not meant as a criticism," the reviewer clarified. Rather, "'The Nativity Story' sticks to the familiar details of the narrative and dramatizes them with sincerity and good taste."
The Christian story is the first major theatrical release about a biblical story from a Hollywood studio since the 1950s.
"Hollywood is in a born-again mode with its rediscovery that Biblical epics can bring manna at the box office. In New Line Cinema's 'The Nativity Story' we have the first smart, artistically and spiritually satisfying film to emerge from this trend," said a Hollywood Reporter review.
"The Nativity Story" released in 3,183 theaters nationwide Friday.