Kung-Fu Panda: family fun, chop socky style

by Glen Baity

I’ve been prettyhard on Dreamworks Animation in the past, calling it unkind names like"Pixar’s less-talented evil twin" and panning its work from Madagascarto the ill-advised Shrek sequels. So I don’t offer praise ofKung Fu Panda lightly. It’s a fine family film, sure, and it sticks toa tried-and-true formula for box office riches: Take a cast of talkinganimals (the cuddlier the better), recruit a group of A-list stars(regardless of voice-acting chops), wash, rinse, repeat. Butthis film is special – indeed, is actually good – because of what itleaves out; namely, stale pop culture references, lazy catch phrasesand a theme song by Smashmouth. The film centers around Po(voiced by Jack Black), a slovenly panda in ancient China whose destinytakes a hard right turn when he is named the Dragon Warrior, the heroof prophecy who will defend his valley against the coming of amonstrous evil. He is aided, reluctantly, by five fellow fighters:Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross),Viper (Lucy Liu) and Mantis (Seth Rogen), and trained by dour masterShifu (Dustin Hoffman). The great evil is Tai Lung (awonderfully growly Ian McShane), the former protégé of Shifu who wasdriven mad by his thirst for power. It’s all very Star Wars, whichitself was very… well, kung fu. Po learns about the spirit of thetrue warrior, Tai Lung learns the nature of true power – the point is,you know where Kung Fu Panda is taking you from the get-go. But you’llhave a good time getting there. Much of that is thanks to thescript by a pair of "King of the Hill" alums, Jonathan Aibel and GlennBerger, which is exceptionally funny and warm as a panda’s belly. Blackis great in the lead, lending his uncommonly expressive voice to awinning role. Po, like everyone else here, is kind of a stockcharacter, but that doesn’t mean he’s boring. A sweet lug in burlappants, he and Black are perfect compliments to one another. And maybeit’s just my inner (and outer) slob speaking, but it’s always fun tosee an overweight guy kick a little butt. Dreamworks Animationpictures always look good, but it should be noted that Kung Fu Pandaexcels, in part, thanks to its exemplary animation. The openingsequence is something you just have to see, a stylistically brilliantshot of color that sets the palette for the story to come. Throughoutthe film, there are over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fight scenes andplenty of sharp visual humor. My beef with Dreamworks has alwaysbeen that its stable of creators has a tendency to ignore the difficultwork of making films that are universally appealing. There’s a reasonPixar has never made a bad movie: It tells stories that are relatableto both adults and children, and it frequently tells them in creative,original ways. Their themes are generally pretty heavy, too: the slowdecline of youthful exuberance in Toy Story 2, for instance, or thedifficult transition between childhood and young adulthood in FindingNemo. It’s tough stuff handled expertly, and it will make those filmsendure for years to come. Kung Fu Panda is one of those rareDreamworks pictures to really go for that aesthetic, and while it maynot look as deeply inward as a Pixar movie, it’s a success on its ownterms. There are no cheeseball references to pop culture icons, thecelebrity voices don’t distract from their characters, and while it’snot above a fart joke every now and then, it generally doesn’t go forcheap laughs. The result is a bit of matinee perfection for young andold, and the introduction of a character you’re almost certain to seeagain.