Kung-Fu Panda (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kung-Fu Panda Poster

Kung Fu Panda adopts a different, less zany tone than one might expect from a movie with that title, especially considering that Jack Black has been brought on board to provide the lead voice. While it would be unfair to say that the movie doesn't present its share of comedic moments, the animated production as a whole jettisons non-stop jokiness in favor of something a little more serious. Thus, Kung Fu Panda ends up presenting a message about believing in oneself that might not have come across as successfully had it tended toward outright fatuousness.

The film is set in and around China's Valley of Peace, where there are no humans, only talking animals. Po the Panda (voice of Black) spends his time daydreaming about being a martial arts hero when he's not working for his father (James Hong) making and serving noodle soup. Meanwhile, at a nearby temple, the head monk, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has had a vision that the power-mad Tia Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from prison and ravage the Valley in his quest for dominance. To stop this, Oogway must discern the one who deserves to become the Dragon Warrior. There are five obvious candidates, all apprentices to Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman): Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Yet, as the result of a seemingly random series of events, Oogway chooses Po. This comes as a surprise not only to an outraged Shifu but to his pupils as well. The thought of Po confronting Tia Lung is laughable since the fat panda has trouble making it to the top of the temple's stairs. But, as must be the case for the movie to have any traction, Po has hidden talents that Shifu is able to discover and unlock, even as time grows short.

The film contains plenty of martial arts action and, without the constraints of needing live action actors, it's able to play fast and loose with the laws of physics. There are nods to the fighting styles of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, as well as homages to the wire-fu and computer enhanced approaches used in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. This is mixed and matched with a cartoonishness that often seems closer to the fighting in the old Batman TV series than to that in any "serious" kung fu movie. From Po's training to Tia Lung's prison escape to the final confrontation, Kung Fu Panda keeps things moving, and it tells its story in a tidy 90 minutes. This is one summer movie that doesn't feel bloated.

The filmmakers get some comedic mileage out of making Po a Kung Fu fanboy. There's a tongue-in-cheek scene that has him examining artifacts in the temple and revealing the kind of minutia that only a true fan would know. He's a die-hard Trekkie suddenly set loose on the Enterprise soundstage. For him, meeting the Furious Five is a dream come true. Even though he's the legendary Dragon Warrior whose arrival has been greatly anticipated, he is awestruck and tongue-tied around Monkey, Tigress, Viper, Crane, and Mantis.

As Po, Jack Black brings his usual mix of puppy dog eagerness and rambunctious humor to the panda. One never forgets that Black is Po - his voice is too distinctive - but that's not a distraction. The reality is that Black plays most of his live-action roles like a cartoon character, so this is perfect for him. The other two main parts - Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu and Ian McShane as Tia Lung - are well-cast. Hoffman brings authority and McShane adds menace, and their voices, while familiar, are not immediately recognizable. After that, however, it's mostly stunt casting. Angelina Jolie doesn't have more than handful of lines, so she's in this mainly to add some star power to the cast. Then there's Jackie Chan. Chan is far from an adept enunciator of English, but the opportunity to have him on board was probably too good to pass up.

The animation is workmanlike, which is to say that the characters and settings are nicely rendered but there are no steps forward in technique. Perhaps we have reached a state where the lush detail of computer generated images is no longer eye-popping; it has become expected. If that's the case, Kung Fu Panda delivers what's expected. There is one interesting twist: the movie opens with a dream sequence that is crudely presented using two-dimensional, exaggerated caricatures, so when the dream ends and we enter the "real" world, the contrast is stark.

In recent years, computer animation has been in the doldrums. While Kung Fu Panda isn't the movie to re-invigorate the genre, it's made with enough technical savvy and provides sufficient fun (especially for younger viewers) that it should be a major player at the summer box office. Although the basic storyline and moral are standard animated film building blocks, Kung Fu Panda contains enough funny material, low-key thrills, and moments of genuine pathos (a flashback detailing Shifu's past connection to Tia Lung) to prevent it from seeming too much like a re-tread. This is a solid family film material, although one suspects the children will get a little more out of it than their parents.

Kung-Fu Panda (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-06
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1