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'Sticky' title, quirky star could propel 'Kung Fu Panda' to top

The animated comedy, with Jack Black as lead voice, will open high on name recognition.

June 06, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

The unexpected contrast in the title can help sell a movie.

Take "Mr. Mom," "Bad Santa" or "Urban Cowboy." Each of those titles grabs attention by setting up a contradiction. DreamWorks Animation SKG and distributor Paramount Pictures hope that kind of juxtaposition will work with "Kung Fu Panda," opening today at 4,114 theaters.

The PG-rated action-comedy, starring the voice of Jack Black as Po, a slacker panda who becomes an unlikely warrior in defense of the Valley of Peace, could top this weekend's box-office results with $50 million or more and launch a third franchise for DreamWorks, the studio behind the "Shrek" and "Madagascar" movies.

This weekend's box-office derby shapes up as a closer horse race, however, than Saturday's Belmont Stakes, in which the colt Big Brown is expected to romp to that sport's Triple Crown. Today's other major release, the Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," from Sony Pictures, looks headed for the comedy star's usual opening in the $34-million- to $48-million range and at least a No. 2 finish, based on consumer tracking.

Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution, called Sandler "one of the best and most reliable brands in the business."

With two holdover hits -- Warner Bros.' "Sex and the City" and Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" -- likely to take in more than $20 million apiece, Hollywood executives and theater owners are banking on a robust weekend overall.

"Kung Fu Panda," whose voice cast includes Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman and Lucy Liu, was made for an estimated $130 million to $150 million.

In moviegoer tracking surveys, its awareness and interest totals are similar to those for DreamWorks' "Madagascar," which opened to $47.2 million on the first three days of Memorial Day weekend 2005. Although this isn't a holiday period, more kids are out of school now, which could boost today's matinee sales.

"Kung Fu Panda" has a "sticky title," said Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing at DreamWorks.

One tracking survey this week showed that 95% of moviegoers recognized the title when prompted, and a relatively high 16% named it without prompting. Globe said consumers see the inherent humor in the notion of a docile panda doing kung fu and like the idea of the quirky Black playing the part. Black's popularity could bring in fans from beyond the core family audience of parents and tykes, meaning tweens, teens and single adults.

The studio is developing a Nickelodeon TV series based on the property, she said, and story lines that could lend themselves to feature sequels if the audience shows up in force for the first movie.

A recent dearth of family films could give "Kung Fu Panda" a further leg up this weekend. "Speed Racer" crashed and burned last month, and nothing has clicked with the kiddies since this spring's animated hit "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" "Kung Fu Panda" was rated PG for "martial arts action" of the bloodless, gore-less variety.

Critics have praised the movie -- 86% of reviews were positive as of Thursday, according to -- which could be a clincher for parents who, like Projector, are wary of anything from the talking-animal genre.

"Zohan," by contrast, has gotten little love from critics: RottenTomatoes categorized 39% of reviews as positive. That's actually good news for the star and Sony, given that his biggest hits, such as "The Longest Yard" and "The Waterboy" have been widely panned.

Whenever Sandler has wowed the critics with dramas or dark comedies like "Reign Over Me" and "Punch-Drunk Love," his paying customers have turned up their noses.

"Zohan," produced for about $90 million, was rated PG-13 for "crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity" -- in other words, the kind of stuff his fans, and those of co-writer Judd Apatow, have come to expect.

Sandler plays an Israeli secret agent who fakes his death and resurfaces in New York as a hairstylist -- as that girl in "Juno" said, "Dream big" -- before complications, and attempted hilarity, ensue.

Tracking results are similar to "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," Sandler's comedy from last summer that opened to $34.2 million.

But "Zohan," like "Kung Fu Panda," figures to benefit from its position on the release calendar, so it could fare better than "Chuck and Larry."

Although several romantic comedies have come out early this summer, including last weekend's female-driven "Sex and the City," this is the season's first pure comedy headlined by a top movie star.

Sony's Blake said this weekend could end up like that comedy showdown at Memorial Day three years ago, when Sandler's "The Longest Yard" and DreamWorks' "Madagascar" opened strongly and became hits.

As any of the horse trainers taking on Big Brown will attest, sometimes there's no shame in running second.




Weekend Forecast

Two comedies, "Kung Fu Panda" and "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," are expected to compete for No. 1 at the box office this weekend. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will release weekend estimates Sunday and final results Monday.

*--* -- Movie 3-day prediction Through the Weeks -- (studio) (millions) weekend

1 Kung Fu Panda (Paramount) $52.3 $52.3 1

2 You Don't Mess With the 40.3 40.3 1 Zohan (Sony)

3 Sex and the City (Warner 23.7 102.1 2 Bros.)

4 Indiana Jones and the 22.1 252.4 3 Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount)

5 The Strangers (Universal) 10.0 38.5 2

6 Iron Man (Paramount) 8.7 290.1 6

7 The Chronicles of Narnia: 7.4 127.7 4 Prince Caspian (Disney)

8 What Happens in Vegas 4.4 73.3 5 (20th Century Fox)

9 Baby Mama (Universal) 1.4 58.5 7

10 Speed Racer (Warner Bros.) 1.2 42.8 5 *--*

Source: Times research

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