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'Kung Fu Panda,' 'Zohan': Laughs But No Guffaws


Hollywood has trotted out some big guns in the last few weeks: "Indiana Jones" for the action crowd, "Sex and the City" for the Cosmo crowd. And this week there's a movie for kids and teenagers: "Kung Fu Panda" - it's a cartoon - and the movie "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," which our critic Bob Mondello says is cartoonish. Here's Bob's take on the "Zohan" and the "Panda."

BOB MONDELLO: The title character in "Kung Fu Panda" works in a noodle shop but dearly wants to be a martial arts star. The title character in "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" has mastered the martial arts but dearly wants to be a hairstylist. And I'm a critic and at this time of year I kind of wish I could take up hang-gliding.

Let's start with the panda. His name is Po. He's cute, easily distracted and perpetually hungry. If he weren't a giant panda, you'd call him a typical pre-teen. Not someone you'd pick to become a town-rescuing dragon warrior, but there's no predicting what ancient Chinese turtle sages will do in animated movies.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kung Fu Panda")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) The universe has brought us the dragon warrior.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) What? What? What? What?

(Soundbite of gong)

MONDELLO: Now, the problem is that Po doesn't know any kung fu, and in choosing him the old turtle bypassed the Furious Five - a tigress, monkey, snake, crane and praying mantis who are actual kung fu masters. So Po, voiced by Jack Black, has to try to impress them, and his teacher.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kung Fu Panda")

Mr. JACK BLACK (Actor): (As Po) I'm a blur, I'm a blur. You never seen bear style, you only seen praying mantis, or monkey style (monkey sounds), or - come at you - snickety snake. How's that?

MONDELLO: The other warriors are voiced by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen, which a lot of marquee talent for characters who mostly kick and punch rather than talk. But this is a story aimed at smaller tots who may not care much. For the parents who get dragged along, Dustin Hoffman waxes quirky as Po's teacher. And the digital animators have referenced Eastern drawing styles, from Chinese screens to Japanese anime to enliven the look of the film.

And if the message of "Kung Fu Panda" - that you have to believe in yourself - is one than even little kids will have heard before, it's one that bears repeating, no pandering there. I could go on, but maybe I shouldn't.

"You Don't Mess with the Zohan" goes on - man, does it go on - for close to two hours. And if you're not a diehard Adam Sandler fan, I don't think the fact that it springboards off Israeli/Palestinian tensions is going to make it feel any shorter.

Sandler's Zohan is an Israeli agent who fakes his own death so he can quit bullet-dodging in the Middle East and take up hairdressing in New York. This new profession's cadences do not come naturally to him, as he proves in a hair salon that specializes in kids.

(Soundbite of movie, "You Don't Mess with the Zohan")

Unidentified Boy (Actor): (As character) I don't want a haircut! Let me go!

Mr. ADAM SANDLER (Actor): (As Zohan) Young man, you know you shouldn't jump around when this nice woman is holding a sharp pair of scissors. If you move, she could slip and slice your jugular vein on accident. There's no way to stitch the jugular. All of your blood will be on the floor in four minutes. I've seen this. I've done this. You don't want this.

(Soundbite of child crying)

MONDELLO: Now, how long would you guess it takes that accent to get old? You just heard 20 seconds' worth. Imagine an hour and 53 minutes combined with slapstick and way too many fagala jokes from the guys who brought you "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."

The film is cartoonish enough that it's probably pointless to get too worked up over offensive stereotyping. What's more annoying than the crassness is the film's sloppiness.

Sandler's not a bad actor when he's asked to be, but here he co-wrote and co-produced, and sure it would be nice if there was someone on the set to say, gee guy, this could smarter if you tried a little. But I'm guessing that when he's in his groove, you don't mess with the Sandler.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.