June 05, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Coming to a Happy Meal near you...

Grade: B
Director: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Starring the voices of: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks’ answer to the perennial Pixar smash, is a charming, exciting, and occasionally uproarious kid’s fable set to the familiar tune of overcoming adversity to realize one’s full potential. It does not break new ground for the animated kid’s genre, but it makes a good time for kids and adults alike.

Po the Panda (Jack Black), a pleasantly plump noodle waiter and closet kung fu fanatic, becomes the improbable choice to assume the mantle of Dragon Warrior and save his ancient Chinese village-cum-barnyard, along with the secrets of the mystical Dragon Scroll, from the clutches from the dastardly Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Po – in essence a nerd with a eating disorder and fanboy obsession – trains under the tutelage of the laconic, Fu Manchu-mustached raccoon Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and a band of celebrity martial artists called the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and, yep, Jackie Chan). Their basic, Herculean charge is to hone Po’s chronic klutziness into some semblance of coordination. The irony, it turns out, is the way Po’s special “gifts” eventually go from inhibiting his kung fu acumen to combining with it to create the ultimate warrior.

The copious, occasionally intense fight scenes make the film a bit inappropriate for extremely young viewers, and Po’s meteoric rise from roly-poly goof to dexterous warrior is improbable even for a cartoon (although, I suppose, no more so than The Karate Kid). However, the vibe remains light-hearted throughout, thanks primarily to Black’s trademark oafish whimsy – perhaps his most acute and accessible use of it since School of Rock – juxtaposed as a clever contrast to the faux-earnestness of the kung fu send-up. Indeed, Black is foremost among voiceover work that is uniformly pitch-perfect and perfectly cast, including Hoffman’s surly sensi and McShane’s menacing growl.

Moreover, anytime the cuddly comedy begins to lag, enter one of the many marvelous, expertly crafted action sequences that give the film its verve. Kung Fu Panda's bookend motifs are simultaneously droll and backhandedly satisfying: from the tongue-in-cheek opening title “Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend” to the film’s prevailing mantra, and perhaps the driving force behind those who created this pleasant parable, “To make something special, you just have to believe it's special.”

Neil Morris

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