The latest animated family film from DreamWorks Animation, Kung Fu Panda is not as much fun as Kung Fu Hustle, but it’s much better than Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.
It’s somewhat amazing that Hollywood’s animated films took this long to cross-breed with the martial-arts genre. (It’s also odd that Japanese anime hasn’t had any high-profile success in this area.) Nevertheless, Kung Fu Panda shows us the possibilities of such a marriage, and delivers a pretty good time as well.
In an ancient China populated by animals, a villainous snow leopard named Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) escapes from prison to take revenge on his village and his former master, a red panda named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). The now-embittered Master Shifu thinks he’s ready for the challenge as the trainer of The Furious Five, a group of legendary warriors of various species. He’s appalled, then, when the warrior chosen to defeat Tai Lung isn’t one of The Five, but rather a clumsy, overweight panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) who works in his dad’s noodle shop, eats when he’s stressed, and can only dream of kung fu glory – he owns The Five’s action figures. Po is blown away by the chance to train with Master Shifu. The master doesn’t return the sentiment.
When Jack Black’s voice is the only part of him in the movie, he’s an altogether cuddlier presence than he is in live action, even in a PG-rated flick like The School of Rock. The cuddliness didn’t altogether suit the shark character he played in Shark Tale, but it’s a much better fit with the awkward, self-conscious, starstruck panda he plays here. He’s complemented well by Hoffman, doing some sharp work as a Zen master who struggles mightily to maintain his Zen calm.
Typically, this DreamWorks film doesn’t have the visual lushness of Pixar’s works of art. The story is boilerplate, and the use of the song “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” at the end is entirely too predictable. Maybe the most disappointing aspect is that The Furious Five aren’t characterized more strongly, especially given the outsize personalities of the voice actors playing them (Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and Jackie Chan). Compare DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge, and you’ll see a film that did a much better job of developing its supporting roles.
Still, Kung Fu Panda is carried off with a minimum of stickiness and a welcome lack of pop-culture riffing in the DELETE, which would have been particularly out of place here. The slapstick comedy bits are funny, but the best thing here is the martial-arts sequences, which are as inventive as anything you’ll see in a live-action film. The clash between Tai Lung and The Furious Five on a suspension bridge is only outdone by the breezy full-fledged fight scene that grows out of Po and Shifu dueling with chopsticks over a dumpling in a bowl. Action like that will have audiences glad to see this movie panda to them.
Kung Fu Panda
Voices by Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Rated PG.