Blessedly free of the smarmy pop-cultural references of Dreamworks Animation Studios' 2004 release "Shark Tale
" and their by-now-long-in-the-tooth "Shrek
" series, "Kung Fu Panda" is a snappy, amusingly witty family comedy. Dressed to the nines with gloriously textured and colorfully pleasing computer animation that actually ranks up there with Pixar's filmography, the picture has a good deal of fun tweaking its storytelling conventions and putting a comical, winking spin on them. At an over-before-you-know-it 90-minute running time, the film doesn't overstay its welcome and, if anything, may have benefited by further developing the somewhat unexceptional supporting characters.
Po (voiced by Jack Black) is something of a black sheep within his family. A big-hearted but clumsy, kung fu-loving panda who nonetheless lacks athletic skills, he firmly feels that his heart is not in carrying on the noodle-making business of his narrow-minded goose father Mr. Ping (James Hong). Through a series of accidental events, Po suddenly finds himself being crowned the prestigious title of Dragon Warrior by wise turtle elder Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), much to the chagrin of the more skilled, in-the-running Furious FiveTigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Mantis (Seth Rogen)and their leader, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Shifu begrudgingly begins training Po, who is not so sure himself whether he is cut out for the job. He'd better learn the ways of being a warrior fast; when the vengeful, villainous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes captivity and starts heading their way, the responsibility falls on Po to protect his people and defeat him.
Directed by rookies Mark Osborne and John Stevenson and written by "King of the Hill" alums Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, "Kung Fu Panda" teaches some solid if decidedly unoriginal lessons about believing in oneself and valuing one's inner strength over brawn. As these morals reveal themselves, though, the film is just a whole lot of fun for animated enthusiasts of any age. Po makes for a terrific protagonist-cum-hero, a lovably tender, if initially klutzy, panda who must find a way to live up to the revered title he has been presented and fight for the safety of his Chinese village. It may only be his voice that he has to work with, but Jack Black (2008's "Be Kind Rewind
") is perfect as Po. Sincere and touching, but also quite funny without going too far over-the-top, Black gives one of the better performances of his career. He makes the character wholly his own.
As Po's noodle-obsessed father Mr. Ping, James Hong (2007's "Balls of Fury
") is a delightful standout. Mr. Ping comes from a long line of animated father figures who want their children to carry on the family business, but this time it skirts the line of parody to optimal comedic effect. How else, then, to explain a scene where Po returns to his dad after being away from home and training with kung fu masters for a long period of time and has no sooner stepped through the door that Mr. Ping has already tied an apron around his waist? As guru Shifu, Dustin Hoffman (2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
") also winningly voices a character who starts off as skeptical that Po has what it takes to be the Dragon Warrior before realizing that he just might have the willpower to succeed. Other voice talents, including Angelina Jolie (2007's "A Mighty Heart
"), Seth Rogen (2007's "Knocked Up
") and Lucy Liu (2007's "Code Name: The Cleaner
"), have less to do and are really too big of names for such nondescript parts. As for leading bad guy Tai Lung, Ian McShane (2007's "Hot Rod
") has the gruff and grizzle necessary to take on the role of villain, but isn't nearly as memorable as someone like Jeremy Irons as similar predecessor Scar in 1994's "The Lion King."
The CG animation in "Kung Fu Panda" is stunning to look at and even impressive, which is quite a feat since it's easy to become jaded by an art form that has so long been near the top of its game. The ancient Chinese-based landscapes are idyllic, while the characters are meticulously conceived and, because they vary in animal, nicely diverse. Action set-pieces, including Tai Lung's daring escape from imprisonment and a death-defying sequence involving a collapsing bridge, are genuinely exciting enough to remind of amusement park attractions.
"Kung Fu Panda" shares many plot points with the recent live-action misfire "The Forbidden Kingdom
," and is superior in every respect, from the fight choreography to the characters to the morals to the overall heart brought to the project. While the climax of "Kung Fu Panda" could have used more thoughthow wonderful might it have been had Po somehow defeated Tai Lung with his brain rather than his high kicks and sucker punches?and the plot could have done well to throw some narrative twists into a rather basic plot, these are rather minor observations that don't ruin the overall entertainment value. Kids will undoubtedly love the film, while adults won't feel talked down to. Until the next great Pixar movie comes down the pike, "Kung Fu Panda" comfortably fits the bill for a quality animated feature.