LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Moviegoers across North America were in a fighting mood during the weekend, cheering the family cartoon "Kung Fu Panda" to the top spot at a box office packed with hits.
DreamWorks Animation's Jack Black comedy about a panda who dreams of martial arts glory handily earned an estimated $60 million during its first three days, distributor Paramount Pictures said on Sunday. The firms had hoped for an opening in the high $40 million range.
But it was not a complete knockout. Columbia Pictures' Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," in which the comedian plays an Israeli commando-turned-New York hairdresser, opened at No. 2 with $40 million. It also beat forecasts of a debut in the mid- to high $30 million range.
But observers said top honors really could have gone either way. In one corner, "Kung Fu Panda" was powered by rave reviews and an underserved family audience; in the other, Sandler could count on young male fans unlikely to be swayed by negative notices from puzzled critics.
As it turned out, both played beyond their traditional audiences. DreamWorks Animation said 71 percent of the audience was older than 17, while Columbia said women accounted for 51 percent of the "Zohan" crowd.
Last weekend's champ, New Line Cinema's romantic comedy "Sex and the City," fell to No. 4 with $21.3 million, a massive 63 percent drop from its surprisingly strong opening weekend. Sales to date stand at $99.3 million for the big-screen adaptation of HBO's fashion-and-relationship series.
Just ahead of it was "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" with $22.8 million, down one place. The total for the Paramount-distributed adventure rose to $253 million after three weekends.
The strong lineup boosted overall sales, said tracking firm Media By Numbers. The top 12 films earned $172 million, up five percent from last weekend, and up 32 percent from the year-ago period, when "Ocean's Thirteen" opened at No. 1 with $36 million.
"Kung Fu Panda" ranks as DreamWorks Animation's third best opening, after 2007's "Shrek the Third" ($122 million) and 2004's "Shrek 2" ($108 million). The three-day tally was a considerable improvement over the studio's most recent film, "Bee Movie" ($38 million), which came out last November.
In addition to Black, whose character Po is a would-be Dragon Warrior, the voice cast includes Dustin Hoffman as a Yoda-type Svengali, and Ian McShane as a villainous kung fu master.
It cost about $130 million to make, and the studio estimated it would spend an additional $125 million to $150 million to market worldwide.
The movie "lends itself to additional chapters," said DreamWorks Animation marketing head Anne Globe, but she said the studio had not yet decided about a sequel.
For Sandler, "Zohan" vies with "Click" as his fourth best opening. That comedy also opened to $40 million, in 2006. Final data for this weekend will be issued on Monday. His record is "The Longest Yard," which opened to $47.6 million in 2005.
Sandler buffed up for his role as a fleet-footed commando who can twist his adversaries into pretzels, but really wants to style hair for old ladies and ravish them afterwards. The film cost about $90 million to make, Columbia said.
Viacom Inc-owned Paramount distributes DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc productions. Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp. New Line is a division of Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. Pictures.
Editing by Eric Walsh