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Kung Fu Panda

Some complain that to be successful, animated movies always have to be about cute animals overcoming challenges. Pixar might have a thing or two to say about that, but today we're going to talk about their chief rival, Dreamworks Animation. Their latest film, Kung Fu Panda, has cute animals overcoming challenges, but this time - they're masters of kung fu. And that, my friends, makes all the difference.

So golden a premise is this, that it also immediately makes sense as the videogame that it already is - I saw promos for this at E3 before anywhere else. That's not a slight, as the movie does have charm even if it's somewhat predictable.

You might be surprised that the charm doesn't all come from Jack Black, though fitting his overenthusiastic overconfidence into the lumbering panda Po works better here for kids than in Nacho Libre. In fact, Po ends up being less of a caricature than much of Black's onscreen work, more relaxed and more willing to learn than his characters usually are.

Kung Fu Panda could easily have been as blunt as its title. Instead, the creative team underplays the obvious jokes and focuses on heart. Yet it never gets too sappy, always leavening its emotional underpinnings with ridiculous kung fu action.

Po lives in the Valley of Peace, worshipping the Furious Five, a martial arts superhero team. Every night he dreams of being their sixth member, an unlikely fantasy when it's clear he has difficulty literally getting up in the morning.

Once there was a sixth member, however: a snow leopard gone bad named Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Chained in an inescapable fortress and guarded by overconfident rhinoceri, Tai Lung vowed to his old master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he would one day return and master the secrets of the Dragon Warrior.

To avoid that hideous destiny, one of the Five must step up and learn the secrets of the Dragon Scroll. Unfortunately, Po gets in the way, and the bemused Sensei Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) chooses to let Po stand as the candidate to go from Panda to Dragon.

Of course we can see where it's going, and everybody knows it. The directors, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, have to focus on clever fight choreography (in a cartoon!) and vocal performances to throw whatever loops and curves they can.

For the most part, it works well enough. Hoffman turns in a surprisingly warm performance as a cranky little red panda, and his interplay with Kim as an aging turtle works really well. It also seems to calm Black down a bit, as he makes more of a real connection with another character here than he usually does in live-action films. And why it's taken this long for someone to cast James Hong as a goose, I don't know, but it was high time.

The Furious Five, however, rarely rise above being stunt casting. David Cross and Seth Rogen don't quite match their characters, and Jackie Chan gets little to do as Monkey. Stripped of her sexiness, it turns out that Angelina Jolie just isn't that memorable a voice as Tigress, and yet it should work. Then in the midst of it comes a typical and inexplicably British villain, with Ian McShane clearly relishing his role, even if it is cliché.

That leaves the action. The animators really take advantage of these different styles of fighting, especially when they get to cut loose with Po. Early on, the panda has to go through what amounts to a Danger Room training sequence, and though the gags are plentiful, they all arise naturally out of the environment. So occasionally Kung Fu Panda has smarts to back up its style.

Little kids will eat it up, and parents can probably talk with older kids about the philosophies (gently) espoused by the movie. It may be pop-culture zen, but it's still a little thought-provoking. For a couple of weeks, this should do well by families and I'll admit - I really want to play the videogame.

Derek McCaw

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