Kung-Fu Panda: family fun, chop socky style

by Glen Baity

I’ve been pretty hard on Dreamworks Animation in the past, calling it unkind names like “Pixar’s less-talented evil twin” and panning its work from Madagascar to the ill-advised Shrek sequels.

So I don’t offer praise of Kung Fu Panda lightly. It’s a fine family film, sure, and it sticks to a tried-and-true formula for box office riches: Take a cast of talking animals (the cuddlier the better), recruit a group of A-list stars (regardless of voice-acting chops), wash, rinse, repeat.

But this film is special – indeed, is actually good – because of what it leaves out; namely, stale pop culture references, lazy catch phrases and a theme song by Smashmouth.

The film centers around Po (voiced by Jack Black), a slovenly panda in ancient China whose destiny takes a hard right turn when he is named the Dragon Warrior, the hero of prophecy who will defend his valley against the coming of a monstrous 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 master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

The great evil is Tai Lung (a wonderfully growly Ian McShane), the former protégé of Shifu who was driven mad by his thirst for power. It’s all very Star Wars, which itself was very… well, kung fu. Po learns about the spirit of the true 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’ll have a good time getting there.

Much of that is thanks to the script by a pair of “King of the Hill” alums, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, which is exceptionally funny and warm as a panda’s belly. Black is great in the lead, lending his uncommonly expressive voice to a winning role. Po, like everyone else here, is kind of a stock character, but that doesn’t mean he’s boring. A sweet lug in burlap pants, he and Black are perfect compliments to one another. And maybe it’s just my inner (and outer) slob speaking, but it’s always fun to see an overweight guy kick a little butt.

Dreamworks Animation pictures always look good, but it should be noted that Kung Fu Panda excels, in part, thanks to its exemplary animation. The opening sequence is something you just have to see, a stylistically brilliant shot of color that sets the palette for the story to come. Throughout the film, there are over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fight scenes and plenty of sharp visual humor.

My beef with Dreamworks has always been that its stable of creators has a tendency to ignore the difficult work of making films that are universally appealing. There’s a reason Pixar has never made a bad movie: It tells stories that are relatable to both adults and children, and it frequently tells them in creative, original ways. Their themes are generally pretty heavy, too: the slow decline of youthful exuberance in Toy Story 2, for instance, or the difficult transition between childhood and young adulthood in Finding Nemo. It’s tough stuff handled expertly, and it will make those films endure for years to come.

Kung Fu Panda is one of those rare Dreamworks pictures to really go for that aesthetic, and while it may not look as deeply inward as a Pixar movie, it’s a success on its own terms. There are no cheeseball references to pop culture icons, the celebrity voices don’t distract from their characters, and while it’s not above a fart joke every now and then, it generally doesn’t go for cheap laughs. The result is a bit of matinee perfection for young and old, and the introduction of a character you’re almost certain to see again.

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