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

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NPR's Bob Mondello reviews two movies opening this week that he says are mildly amusing but no great shakes. In Kung Fu Panda a panda wants to become a kung fu warrior, and in Don't Mess with the Zohan, an Israeli agent and all-around tough guy wants to be ... a hairdresser.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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.

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In 'Kung Fu Panda,' a Pudgy Hero Packs a Punch

Po the Panda holds the Dragon Scroll in triumph i

Po (voiced by Jack Black) — an out-of-shape kung fu fanboy who works in a noodle shop — finds himself the unlikely nominee for the post of Dragon Warrior. DreamWorks hide caption

itoggle caption DreamWorks
Po the Panda holds the Dragon Scroll in triumph

Po (voiced by Jack Black) — an out-of-shape kung fu fanboy who works in a noodle shop — finds himself the unlikely nominee for the post of Dragon Warrior.

DreamWorks

Kung Fu Panda

  • Directors: Mark Osborne                   John Stevenson
  • Genre: Comedy, Animation
  • Running Time: 88 minutes
Po (voice of Jack Black) licks his lips, looking at bowl of dumplings i

Weigh of the Warrior: Dumplings (and other incentives) help keep Po on task. DreamWorks hide caption

itoggle caption DreamWorks
Po (voice of Jack Black) licks his lips, looking at bowl of dumplings

Weigh of the Warrior: Dumplings (and other incentives) help keep Po on task.

DreamWorks

Roly-poly Po is mischievous, easily distracted, perpetually hungry and every bit as martial-arts-besotted as he is clumsy. If he weren't a giant panda, in fact, you'd call him a typical preteen.

Voiced by Jack Black in the animated adventure Kung Fu Panda, the unflappable bamboo-chomper spends his days fantasizing about kicking and chopping his way to glory, even as he labors in his father's Chinese noodle shop. (Dad's a goose, a fact that none of the other critters seems to find surprising, so I guess there's no reason for us to.)

Po turns out to be smarter than your average bear, not to mention sweet of disposition and amusingly smart-alecky, but none of that would seem to qualify him for the post of Dragon Warrior — a kind of official Town Protector. But at a competition, he gets accidentally anointed by a distracted turtle sage, and therein hangs our story.

The unorthodox choice bypasses the Furious Five — martial-arts virtuosos Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen), who despite all that marquee vocal talent have next to no personality — and obligates the tiny Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, as a harried red panda) to train Po so that he can discover the secret of the Dragon Scroll. A great honor — except that a thuggish snow leopard is about to escape from prison.

Though the film's simple story is squarely aimed at tots, DreamWorks' digitizers have referenced Eastern visual styles — everything from delicate Chinese screens to flashy Japanese anime — to enliven the look of the film. Pastel sunsets, hazy mountain vistas and dewy flowering trees can't substitute for an engaging storyline, of course, but they'll no doubt prove distracting for parents, as will Hoffman's quirky Yoda-esque line readings.

Even for kids, the message — not much more complicated than "You have to believe in yourself" — will be something less than a revelation, but there's amusement to be had in the fighting and the training, especially when Hoffman's Shifu discovers that food (and only food) will hold Po's attention.

Eventually there's a big battle, the outcome of which — like everything else in this charming but studiously formulaic animated romp — is never in much doubt.

From Adam Sandler, a Sloppy 'Mess' of a Comedy

Adam Sandler as Zohan, with a purple umbrella i

Defensive posture: Adam Sandler's Zohan assumes the position. Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures
Adam Sandler as Zohan, with a purple umbrella

Defensive posture: Adam Sandler's Zohan assumes the position.

Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

  • Director: Dennis Dugan
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 100 minutes

Among the reliable hazards of summer — sunburn, heatstroke, mosquitoes — we should probably include Adam Sandler comedies. They arrive heralded by posters bearing little more than a title and the star's goofy visage; they take in millions, in inverse proportion to the wit of their scripts, and then retire quickly to video-store shelves.

This year's entry, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, has a hot topic — Israeli-Palestinian tension — to match the hot weather, but it's otherwise constructed to a slapsticky formula. Sandler plays Zohan, a Mossad agent and ladies man (cue the padded-crotch jokes) who's grown tired of assassination-planning and bullet-dodging in the Middle East (cue the hummus jokes) and grown fond of hairdressing (cue the feygeleh jokes).

So he fakes his death and relocates to an Israeli emigre community in New York City (cue the discount-appliance jokes), where he finds a gig as a stylist to randy old ladies (cue the "special back-room services" jokes). And on the way to a can't-we-all-please-just-get-along finale, he falls for a gorgeous babe of Arab descent (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui).

As scripted by Sandler, Robert Smigel and the recently ubiquitous Judd Apatow, everything is sufficiently cartoonish — Zohan can catch speeding bullets (at one point with a nostril) and cook fish with his derriere (don't ask) — that it's probably pointless to get too worked up over the offensive stereotypes the film trades in.

The film is at least an equal-opportunity offender, with homophobic skinheads crashing gay parties, Muslim extremists opening fast-food falafel joints, and Jewish households so garish the wallpaper might make your eyes bleed.

What's more annoying than the crassness, really, is the directorial sloppiness that results in a virtually mirthless first half-hour and a slow build to chuckles thereafter. Sandler, saddled here with an accent that proves annoying before the film is 10 minutes old, can be a decent actor when a project requires it. (Witness Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love.) But Dennis Dugan, the auteur behind last summer's I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, isn't the director to pull nuance out of his star.

And with Sandler also co-writing and co-producing, it's hard to know who else might have said, "Hey folks, this could really be smarter if we tried a little." You don't mess with the Sandler, presumably.

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