Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda, the latest animated effort from the folks at DreamWorks, is an energetic and surprisingly colorful family adventure tale that trumps formula through sheer force of personality. Obviously owing a debt to Joseph Campbell, the movie tells the story of a big-hearted panda bear who follows his bliss, and discovers the unlikely hero within himself.
Enthusiastic, big and more than a little clumsy, Po (voiced by Jack Black) is the biggest fan of kung fu around — he has vivid, participatory dreams in which he stars as a swaggering, heroic figure, and foes "go blind from exposure to pure awesomeness." Unfortunately, none of this exactly comes in handy while working every day in the noodle shop of his very practical father, Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong). Po's dreams unexpectedly become reality when he's chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy by the aged Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, more or less doing the Yoda thing). Tapped to defend his city and learn the secret of the sacred "Dragon Scroll," which will grant him unlimited power, Po joins the world of elite kung fu and studies alongside his idols, the legendary "Furious Five" — Tigress (Angelina Jolie, purring proudly), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu) and Crane (voiced by David Cross, of Arrested Development).
With the looming threat of an attack by the vengeful, all-powerful Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), Oogway's decision doesn't sit well with his former pupil, and the trainer of the Furious Five, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). He had envisioned one of his charges inheriting the mantle of leadership, certainly not a pudgy panda bear. Shifu tries to make life for Po so miserable that he'll quit, but before they know it, bitter snow leopard Tai Lung — Shifu's adopted son — is headed their way, and it's up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat. Putting his heart (and considerable girth) into the task, Po tries to live up to everyone's expectations of him, and the unlikely hero ultimately finds that his greatest weaknesses might turn out to be strengths.
You wouldn't necessarily know it from a lot of the advance promotional clips, but Black's intentionally overbearing voice work— which completes a circular lap of total investment and then does another 180 degrees for good measure — turns out to be a good match for Po, who compensates for his nervousness through excess (both eating and talking). There's something infectious about his indefatigability and lack of self-pity; Po doesn't eventually succeed merely by his wits, physical skill or pure happenstance, but rather a combination of all three, something that seems to ring true to real life.
Leaning a bit on Asian art and animation style, Kung Fu Panda eschews the rounded angles and cuddly style of a lot of youth-skewing animated flicks, and is better and more intriguing and visually engaging for it. Co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne do a good job of balancing slapstick comedic elements with fast-paced action, while never straying far from the core story, or awkwardly cramming in referential modern gags or bathroom humor. Shifu and the Furious Five, too, are nicely drawn; while the latter each have different feelings about being passed over for Po, the point is that they have these feelings and work through them, they aren't reduced to overly broad, two-dimensional slapstick sounding boards.
While the reasons for Tai Lung's bitterness are well sketched, there isn't necessarily a strong sense of imperilment with respect to the town as a whole. In fact, it's never quite clear, apart from his physical brutishness and some hastily pronounced expository balderdash, what real threat Tai Lung presents; he's an antagonist because of his snarling discontent and blinding personal ambition, not any true opposition.
If one wants to further nitpick, the action match-ups — particularly the finale, with Po having progressed a bit in skill — aren't necessarily based on any principles of counterweight. No, Shifu's training technique is instead just based on having Po imagine food, and then dangling these tangible rewards just out of his reach. (Somewhat weirdly, there's a silly but important mystical finger hold that seems nipped from the ending of Hot Rod — or vice versa, since it's just as easy to assume, given the typical gestation of an animated film — and also pops up in the trailer's for this week's You Don't Mess with the Zohan.) Still, the visual pop and thrill of these action sequences don't disappoint — indeed, among the high points of the entire movie, alongside a bridge-set battle between Tai Lung and the Furious Five, is a wild, dumpling-inspired training montage, which could play favorably alongside scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That's enough for kids and tweens, certainly, and parents won't be suffering through this with rolled eyes, either. (Paramount/DreamWorks, PG, 91 minutes)