A big, fat panda learns how to do kung fu in the aptly titled Kung Fu Panda. It features a bravura vocal performance from Jack Black as Po, the panda who finds himself elevated from noodle cook to kung fu master.
The story is sweet; the action is well-animated; and the film's sense of humor is fun for all ages (unless you are like 3 months old or something, in which case the jokes will probably go over your head). In short, it's much, much better than Shark Tale, the other DreamWorks animated movie that Black lent his voice to.
The film takes place in China, where Po dreams of becoming a kung fu master while his well-meaning father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), is unwavering in his vision of his son's destiny to become a hallowed noodle cook. When an ancient kung fu turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is set to name the Dragon Warrior--the next kung fu superhero of sorts to protect their kingdom--Po is all about being there for the crowning, so much so that he straps some fireworks to his ass and makes a grand entrance. Oogway picks him for the task.
This is much to the chagrin of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), another kung fu master who trained the treacherous Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung is a Judas tiger (appropriate, since McShane played Judas in Jesus of Nazareth) who went all bad when, after years of training, he was passed over for the honor of Dragon Warrior. He's been imprisoned for years in a large dungeon run by rhinoceros guards (one of them voiced by the very bass Michael Clarke Duncan). Anticipation of his angry return is one of the reasons a new Dragon Warrior is needed.
But Po isn't up to the challenge at first; he just wants to eat dumplings and steal cookies. He's housed with other potential kung fu masters like Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie). They all think they are far more qualified for the job of Dragon Master, mainly because they know kung fu, while Po knows eating.
So, OK, it's predictable that Po will find a way to perfect kung fu and defeat his enemy. This is a movie for kids, and they're not going to want Po to get his ass kicked, thereby hurting merchandise opportunities. That would be bad for business, bad for the kids and bad for Toys R Us.
In a very Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid kind of way, Shifu finds a method to improve Po's skills and get him ready for the task of animated butt-kicking. Po's ascension to Kung Fu Panda is fun to watch, and nicely voiced. Black's Po is an example of perfect vocal casting, along the lines of Tom Hanks as Woody in Toy Story and Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin. Black, who is prone to rather extreme live antics in his films, restrains himself a bit, with just slight touches of his patented mania. Nonetheless, he truly occupies the character.
I must confess that I didn't know it was Dustin Hoffman lending his voice to Shifu until the credits played (which I recommend sitting through, if only to hear Black's awesome rendition of "Kung Fu Fighting"). Cross gets my pick for best of the rest as Crane, a polite if somewhat annoyed fellow martial-arts student.
The film doesn't break any new ground in the field of animation, although the Chinese backdrops offer nice visual opportunities (love those cherry blossoms). In fact, this film could've been a little boring if it had been cast differently. Black and company give the proceedings some nice dimension and quality.
The film isn't quite up there with the best of Pixar, which still holds the computer-animated crown with the likes of The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Still, it's better than the last Shrek, for sure, and miles better than dreck like Meet the Robinsons. And after a sweet opening weekend, it's probably a given that Black's panda will be high-kicking in future installments.