Box Office Guru Preview: Black vs. Sandler in Comedy Showdown

Kung Fu Panda looks to Mess With the Zohan.

Two big doses of comedy from a pair of Hollywood's funniest men will hit the multiplexes across North America on Friday in a fierce battle for the number one spot. For family audiences there is the animated extravaganza Kung Fu Panda starring Jack Black while Adam Sandler counters with his latest laughfest aimed at young men, You Don't Mess With The Zohan. The new choices will offer some variety to a marketplace dominated by the female-skewing event pic Sex and the City and the old-school adventure tale Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. With so many worthy choices, and four movies likely to top $20M, it looks to be a sizzling session at the box office as the top five films alone have the strength to beat the entire Top 20 from a year ago.

Jack Black leaps into theaters anchoring Kung Fu Panda playing a Chinese panda bear who trains to become a martial arts expert in order to save his village. The PG-rated toon features voices from a wide array of actors including Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, Ian McShane, and Jackie Chan. The marketplace is certainly ready for a major family film right now. Since March's Horton Hears a Who, there really hasn't been anything major to excite this lucrative audience segment. Last month saw two high profile PG-rated pics, but the dark and violent The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian has attracted half of the crowd of its predecessor while Speed Racer was an all-out disaster. With summer vacations getting closer and closer, children of all ages are pumped for something fun and exciting to go and see.

In the DreamWorks stable, Kung Fu Panda should post one of the largest openings for a non-sequel animated entry. It even has the potential to set a new high. Currently, 2004's Shark Tale and 2005's Madagascar are tops with $47.6M and $47.2M, respectively. At today's ticket prices those would be in the low $50M range. Panda has similar features like having a popular comedian in the lead. Dramatic actors add little to the box office strength of an animated film with their voices, even big A listers. But when comedians are at the center and are allowed to improvise and add their own sense of humor, moviegoers cheer. Panda also has the type of comedy that will be loved by adults as well as by kids. Good marks from critics won't hurt either.

The marketing has been solid. The concept is familiar with a young talking animal going after his dreams while the Asian setting adds something new. Big business should be had with kids of single-digit age since recent family offerings have been too risqué for parents to buy tickets for. Plus direct competition is close to zero making for a perfect time to strike. Attacking over 3,600 theaters, Kung Fu Panda may eat up around $52M this weekend.


Jack Black as the voice of Po in Kung Fu Panda

For zany humor from characters that are more human ticket buyers have another choice this weekend as Adam Sandler returns with his latest escapade in You Don't Mess With the Zohan. The PG-13 film reunites the comedy superstar for the fourth time with director Dennis Dugan after Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, and last summer's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Zohan finds the former SNL star playing the title character, a first-rate commando in Israel's armed forces who escapes to New York to pursue his true passion of hairstyling. Sandler hopes this will do for him what Coming to America did for Eddie Murphy two decades ago this very month.

No comedian has been more consistent at the box office this decade than Sandler who has scored $100M+ grossers over the last six consecutive years. Aside from Will Smith, no other Hollywood star can claim such a streak. Plus not since the Harold and Kumar sequel has there been a comedy aimed at young males. And after all the media attention that Carrie Bradshaw and pals have gotten in the past week, guys may be ready for some testosterone-fueled fun.

However, Sandler fans are not known to be all that into Israeli soldiers or hairdressers so subject matter could be a problem. Last July's Chuck and Larry bowed at number one with $34.2M, but it was also the funnyman's lowest opener for a broad comedy since 2000's Little Nicky. Maybe the combination of a ridiculously long title and a not-so-macho storyline could prevent Sandler from reaching his usual $40M debut mark again this weekend. In addition, the comedian is straying from his natural voice for the first time since Nicky which doesn't bode well either. Fans like it best when Adam plays Adam, just a regular American dude getting himself into comical situations. Infiltrating over 3,300 theaters, You Don't Mess With The Zohan could debut with around $35M.


Sandler is The Zohan

Panda and Zohan kick off an unusually light June release schedule which will see fewer wide releases than normal. In fact across all four of the month's weekends only two competitors enter wide release each session for a total of eight major players. Looking at the last several years there have always been 10 to 12 wide releases over the same time period. Studios are hoping that each film this June will have some extra breathing room to find its audience and not get stomped on a week later by a barrage of four pictures cramming into multiplexes at the same time.

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