SUNDAY AM: North American box office gross expanded bigger than expected this weekend – a gargantuan 25% more dollars taken in than the same weekend last year. DreamWorks Animation’s feisty pot-bellied Kung Fu Panda distributed by Paramount led the way, fighting to a $60 million finish after opening to $20.3 million Friday and $22.5 million Saturday in very wide release at 4,114 theaters. This made the Jack Black-voiced toon Dreamworks Animation’s all-time non-sequel opening, overpowering 2004 Shark Tale’s $47.6M, and 2005 Madagascar’s $47.2M (the latter over Memorial Weekend). The two studios were surprised how much the PG panda pic played like a non-family film. “More like a live action film than a traditional animated film where you normally get a Friday number, then a huge bump on Saturday,” a Paramount insider told me. “But our Friday was bigger than we expected because we got more of a general audience. I attribute it to people loving pandas and Jack Black being a big star.” Interestingly, exit polls showed that 55% of the audience was female, and 51% over age 25, and 71% age 17 and older.

Best of all, the toon has the next two weekends to itself before Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E opens. Kung Fu Panda‘s success just goes to show that DreamWorks Animations’ strategy of making 90-minute toons is shrewd: not only can theaters get in a lot of screenings, but both parents and offspring can sit through anything that short without too much squirming. (Actually, this panda received rave reviews.) Plus, I have a pet theory: almost any animated film featuring characters with fur does better at the box office. Anyway, with great tracking showing big awareness and wanna-see by parents and kids, Kung Fu Panda performed better than expected. 

Also exceeding expectations was Adam Sandler’s PG-13 You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, a Sony picture which Judd Apatow co-wrote under his banner. The highly original comedy about an Israeli spy turned NYC hairdresser with kickboxing moves had some really funny ads, though reviews were mostly terrible (only 35% positive among critics on RottenTomatoes.com). But this is Sandler and Apatow, branded together. So audiences responded: evenly split 51% female and 49% male; 51% over 25 years old. Zohan opened with $14.9 million Friday and $14 million Saturday from 3,462 theaters. for a $40M weekend. That’s less than 2003′s $42.2M Anger Management. But this is why the Sandler gets paid the mega-salary: because time and time again, his star power can open a comedy for a reliable $40M opening, give or take a few bucks. This is Sandler’s 5th film to open to $40 Million or more and his 9th  title to open north of $30 million (Waterboy, Big Daddy, Click, The Longest Yard, 50 First Dates, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and LarryAnger Management, Mr. Deeds)Zohan is one of two near back-to-back laffers which Sandler and Apatow, long roommates before they were famous, are making together. (Photos of movie-goers and ticket-buyers by Jim Stevenson.)

As for the follow-up to last weekend’s No. 1 Sex And The City, the HBO Films / New Line / Warner Bros’ ultimate chick flick was No. 4, down 63% one week later to $21.3M in expanded 3,325 runs and a new cumulative of $99.2M.

The rest of the Top 10 were holdovers. Here’s the chart:

1. Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks Animation/Paramount) — 3-day Wkd: $60M, Cume: $60M
2. You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (Sony) — 3-day Wkd: $40M, Cume $40M 
3. Indiana Jones 4 (Paramount) — 3-Day Wkd: $22.8M, Cume: $253M
4. Sex And The City (HBO Films/New Line/WB) — 3-day Wkd: $21.3M, Cume: $99.2M
5. The Strangers (Universal) — 3-day Wkd $9.2M, Cume: $37.6M
6. Iron Man (Paramount) — 3-Day Wkd: $7.5M, Cume: $288.8M
7. Chronicles of Narnia 2 (Disney) — 3-Day Wkd: $5.5M, Cume: $125.8M
8. What Happens In Vegas (Fox) — 3-Day Wkd: $3.4M, Cume: $72.2M
9. Baby Mama (Universal) — 3-Day Wkd: $779K, Cume: $57.9M
10. Made Of Honor (Sony) — 3-Day Wkd: $775K, Cume: $44.6M

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...

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