Kung Fu Panda
Animated martial arts fable kicks it up a notch
Kung Fu Panda
Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie
Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks’ new family cartoon, begins with a traditional 2-D animated sequence of unparalleled style. In an angular, ink-heavy fashion, mixing ancient Chinese scrollwork and modern Japanese anime, we see our hero, a tubby Panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black), kung fu his way through an army of enemies. Alas, it’s all just a dream, as we soon cut back to “reality” and the three-dimensional CGI animation that has been the industry standard since Toy Story swept through the cinemas.
In just about any other film, this would be a fatal mistake. Normally, computer animators are so enamored with the technical sophistication of the art form, they forget to inject any semblance of art into their work. (See for reference: Shark Tale, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, The Polar Express, Doogal, Hoodwinked, Over the Hedge--hell, practically any cartoon not made by Pixar.) Believe it or not, Kung Fu Panda--a seemingly rote “cute animal” parody of your standard chop-socky pic--comes damnably close to treating itself as a real movie with a tight script, good actors and a unique look.
It may take audience members a few minutes to get over their reservations. (Oh boy, Jack Black as a fat martial artist? Why not just remake Beverly Hills Ninja while you’re at it?) But Kung Fu Panda will soon suck audiences of all ages into its whimsical fantasy world.
Awakening from his action-packed dream, Po finds himself as he always has been--fat, lazy and slaving away at his dad’s rural noodle shop in the excitement-free Valley of Peace. Hearing word of a martial arts tournament at the Jade Palace Temple to choose a new “Dragon Warrior,” Po tries to ditch out on work and attend. Dad has other plans, however, saddling his son with a noodle cart with which to ply the fight-hungry crowds. Lugging the big contraption behind himself, Po arrives too late to catch the tournament. Struggling to make his way inside the locked gates of the mountaintop temple, Po stumbles smack-dab into the middle of the awards ceremony and is accidentally crowned the Dragon Warrior by the temple’s seemingly senile Master Oogway. This turn of events doesn’t sit so well with the Jade Palace’s legendary martial artists, the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogan--all underused, but quite good). Po has idolized this quintet of super-powered animal warriors for years, and now he’s stolen their thunder by getting himself named inheritor of the legendary Dragon Scroll, greatest of all martial arts secrets. Talk about awkward.
Also upset by Po’s untimely entrance is the temple’s teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who conspires to drive this bumbling black-and-white interloper from the premises. Eventually--thanks to a mixture of be-true-to-yourself ethics and some food-based motivation--the noble panda proves himself worthy of training. But can Po become a kung fu master in time to stop an infamously evil snow leopard by the name of Tai Lung (“Deadwood” ’s appropriately menacing Ian McShane), who has just escaped from jail and is returning to the Valley of Peace in search of some big-time revenge?
The script by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (both regular gag men for FOX’s “King of the Hill”) is smartly assembled. The writers seem to have spent as much time crafting a well-thought-out story as they did coming up with jokes. Not that there are any big surprises, narratively speaking--good triumphs over evil, lessons are learned, fathers and sons reconcile. But the characters are well-conceived, the emotions are honest and the story zips right along. Even the zoomorphic martial arts sequences are exciting. A literal food fight between Po and Shifu and the climactic mano-a-mano between our hero and Tai Lung are inventive, expressive and a whole lot of fun.
The voicecast is appropriately chosen. (Jackie Chan as a martial arts monkey? Angelina Jolie as a tough tigress? How can you go wrong?) But the talent bleeds over into smaller roles as well. Veteran actor James Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China), for example, makes a big impression as Po’s cheerful but practical father, Mr. Ping (a skinny goose, for added sight gag potential).
Kung Fu Panda is a far better film than its title and concept would indicate. Despite the funny animals, it’s quite reverent to its source material and actually pulls off some exciting action sequences. Kids will have a ball, of course. But adults with a taste for martial arts cinema will appreciate this colorful cartoon fantasy almost as much.