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
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
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
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
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
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.