It’s summer, so you know what that means. It’s time for another DreamWorks Animation blockbuster! This time, the most prolific and profitable animation studio since Disney drew films by hand is back with a tale of an unlikely hero, a tubby panda, and an unlikely genre, kung fu.
Po the Panda (Jack Black, finally in his element as a cartoon character) is a friendly, roly-poly fellow who works at his father’s noodle shop, but like pretty much everyone who works in those kind of jobs, he’s got bigger dreams. Po idolizes the Furious Five, a collection of kung-fu heroes known for their bravery, skills, and general awesomeness. Unfortunately for Po, pandas aren’t known for their bravery, physical prowess, or ability to do anything other than eat, so that leaves the noodle shop and his fantasies.
That is, until Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) announces that he will choose the legendary Dragon Warrior, which is an event that brings the whole village together, except of course for poor Po, who finds himself locked out after discovering that stairs and fatness do not mix well. The expectation is that one of the Furious Five: Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Snake (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), or Tigress (Angelina Jolie) will be picked to learn the secret of the Dragon scroll and become the ultimate kung fu master. Unfortunately for the Five, and their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman in a great bit of casting), the lucky winner isn’t someone they expected. I think you know who is picked, based on the title of the movie. Unfortunately for Po and the rest of the village, this infuriates the vengeful Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who is the ultimate kung-fu machine and a former star pupil of Shifu.
If you’ve seen any kung fu movie, the various plots of Kung Fu Panda will be instantly obvious. There’s the former student out for revenge, the banding together of the five styles of kung fu, the training montages, the wise old master who speaks in riddles yet learns a lesson from his pupil, and the awkward pupil who becomes a hero despite of himself. Rather than splitting each up into one separate movie, as most kung fu films do, they combine them all together, and thanks to the all-star cast, it works very well and keeps the film moving at a brisk pace.
The voice acting is top notch, with Jack Black’s usual tiresome antics toned down by the medium of animation. He’s a very good vocal actor, to his credit, and very expressive vocally. Angelina Jolie is also in her own as Tigress (which is fitting since it fits her real life personal to a T). Dustin Hoffman is great as Shifu, and Randall Duk Kim is perfect as the wizened turtle Oogway. Lucy Liu’s Snake and Seth Rogen’s Mantis do most of the interaction with Po, and Jackie Chan has very little in the way of lines. I would’ve liked to see more interaction between the Five, because what is there is very good stuff.
The animation, as is the standard with DreamWorks, is top notch. The fighting scenes are fluid and fast-paced. The scenery borders on breathtaking, and the character design is topnotch. Of all the animation companies doing computer animation these days, if anyone gets it right, it’s DreamWorks. This is one of their better recent efforts, despite the flimsiness of the plot.
It’s a kung-fu film at heart. There’s not going to be a ton of plot to speak of. In that way, it fits in its genre. The only difference is the medium of animation, rather than wires to make the fighting magic. Other than that, it’s straightforward and quite refreshing.
There’s not a lot of snide smirking designed to appeal to cynical adults, like in the Shrek films, but the action is impressive and Po is appealing enough that you don’t need the winking and nudging meant to take the piss out of hoary old kung fu movies. Every cornerstone of the genre is rendered in a kid friendly way that is also very respectful to what kung fu movies are, and to the genre as a whole. There’s fun there, but it’s not the mocking sort of fun, just a little playfulness that doesn’t detract from the film’s overall message (and there is one, but it’s handled very well and not shoved down your throat). There aren’t a lot of surprises along the way, but it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.