Kung Fu Panda (2008) / Animation-Action
MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running time: 92 min
Cast (voices): Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Dan Fogler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kyle Gass
Director: Mark Osborn, John Stevenson
Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Jack Black (The Holiday, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny) voices a bumbling panda bear named Po, who dreams of being a master of kung fu all the while being groomed to take over the family noodle business. Through a fluke (or is it?), Po is chosen as the unlikely Dragon Warrior, prophesied to be the protector of the village from the vengeful menace of mad snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane, The Golden Compass). However, Po has absolutely no skills whatsoever, so he is groomed by master trainer Shifu (Hoffman, Stranger Than Fiction), who is skeptical that Po was the right choice, to hone some skills to have a chance at being the kind of master he was chosen to be.
As this is a DreamWorks production, comparisons to Shrek are to be expected. While there are some similarities between the main characters and their dispositions, having to prove themselves and their big, lazy bodies worthy or the fight, the anticipation that Kung Fu Panda will be just another adventure coated with incessant pop culture references are not warranted. Although derivative to the world of kung fu flicks, there is almost a freshness factor that comes into play when a 3D animated feature goes back to paying homage to its inspiration instead of copycatting the prevailing styles of the marketplace. That's not to say that this breaks any new ground, as there are still anthropomorphic animals of a wide (and cute) variety, celebrity voice work, plus the character of Po is the same hapless, well-meaning loner that must overcome his own fears and weaknesses to be the hero that will have everyone celebrating him -- a staple of both animated family films and kung fu movies.
At the same time, DreamWorks still has yet to make a film to put them on a par with Pixar in terms of being able to make animated family films that will last the test of time as classics in their genre, rather than populist features that work primarily in the here and now. The story is too traditional, built more like an throwback spoof of old-school martial arts, with only the quality of its animation setting itself apart from the countless others to travel the same path, including the recent live-action film The Forbidden Kingdom and last year's 3D animated TMNT (not to mention the spoof, Balls of Fury). And yet, the animation isn't just good, it's remarkable, with fluid movement, well-rendered environs, and terrific choreography, if one can credit non-live action as such. The voice work is also quite good, with the celebrities actually giving life to the characters independent of their own personas, though most of these characters have relatively few lines outside of Po and his mentor, Shifu.
Kung Fu Panda gets a solid recommendation for being a good example of every genre one could label it as. It's an amiable comedy, a lively adventure, fantastic animation, entertaining for families (though young boys will like it most), and a worthwhile homage to kung fu flicks of old (I enjoyed the end's homage to Circle of Iron). While it isn't a must-see film by any stretch, it delivers the entertainment and escapism you're likely seeking going in.
©2008 Vince Leo