I first heard about Kung Fu Panda a year or so ago, when an early press release arrived in my e-mail inbox. Attached was the first official promotional photo for the film, showing a tiger character being voiced by Angelina Jolie leaping through the air mid-kick. Although many computer-animated movies these days are impressive to look at, there was something extra captivating about this character, with her bright colors and Asian-inspired design. I remember thinking that Kung Fu Panda would be really cool if the whole movie turned out to be like that single picture.
Mission accomplished. Somewhere around the mid-point of the finished film, I realized that I was sitting in my seat with a big grin on my face. As silly as the premise sounds, this movie has fun bursting from its seams. Every frame is a wonder and, best of all, the amazing visual design compliments the story rather than overshadowing it. For my money, Kung Fu Panda belongs on the top shelf of animated features, alongside the first two Shreks and the Pixar flicks.
Jack Black does the voice of Po the panda, who works in his father's noodle restaurant but longs to someday become a kung fu master. He gets his chance when their little town, the Village of Peace, is threatened by the escape of Tai Ling (Ian McShane), a vicious snow leopard who was imprisoned for becoming power hungry and harming several members of the community who stood in his way.
A prophecy suggests that one "Dragon Master" will emerge to defeat the enemy, and an assortment of skilled warriors show up, each hoping to be the chosen one. There's a tiger (Jolie), a monkey (Jackie Chan), a crane (David Cross), a snake (Lucy Liu), and a mantis (Seth Rogen). All are prepared for battle, but it is Po who is inexplicably believed to be the real master, much to the chagrin of the others. The local martial arts guru, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), is entrusted to teach Po some genuine moves. When that proves difficult, he helps the panda to develop his own unique style of kung fu fighting that plays to his strengths.
Kung Fu Panda works on a couple different levels. As a kids' movie, it has a wonderful story about how people (or pandas) who don't fit in can learn to find their own particular skills. Po knows he doesn't fit the conventional mold of a Dragon Master - he's overweight, uncoordinated, and scared - yet by embracing his uniqueness, he finds a way to overcome all these things. There's also a nice subplot about the others growing to like and accept him for who he is.
The movie also works as a flat-out comedy. Unlike a lot of recent animated fare, this one doesn't feel the need to insert a lot of out-of-place pop culture references or blatant attempts at hipness. As any good comedy will, it finds humor from within, exploring its characters and situations to generate laughs. It's certainly a benefit that all the cast members know how to deliver a joke, even when they are only heard and not seen. Getting major stars to do voices in animated features has largely become the norm, but in this case, the actors are well-chosen for their roles and they approach them with diligence. Especially Hoffman, who you can almost hear Method acting.
Most importantly, Kung Fu Panda works as a martial arts movie, and it's on this level that I think I like it best. Although animated, the fight scenes have the same bullet-fast sense of pacing and movement that mark the most extraordinary live-action martial arts scenes. The fact that the moves aren't real does nothing to decease their ability to provide excitement.
The film clearly has its heart in martial arts cinema. The more films you've seen in that genre, the more you'll appreciate the way Panda incorporates references to it. For instance, it was an inspired decision to have all the characters represent real styles of fighting (crane style, monkey style, etc.). The visuals have a rich, eye-popping sense of color, much like the movies of the great Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), while the action sequences mix mayhem and humor in a manner similar to the best of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong pictures. The love of martial arts cinema also manifests itself in the comedy. Notice, in particular, how every object Po encounters - no matter how innocuous - seems to hold some special, sacred meaning.
Kung Fu Panda is a movie that delighted me from start to finish. Everything about it is fun. Here is perhaps the ultimate sign of its success: as the end credits rolled to a remake of "Kung Fu Fighting" performed by Jack Black and Gnarls Barkley vocalist Cee-Lo Green, three young boys exiting the theater stopped execute a few awkward martial arts moves on one another. There's an old saying about how a great musical will "leave 'em dancing in the aisles." Well this movie provides the kung fu equivalent of that.
( out of four)
Kung Fu Panda is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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