As much as I’ve enjoyed the growing number of animated features aimed at more adult audiences, I’m happy to report that the latest talking-animal-on-a-journey-of-self-discovery movie is more than tolerable. It’s quite good. The CG family film from DreamWorks Animation has earned a black belt in fun and delivers some endearing characters fleshed out with beautiful animation. The toon shop that has been leaning so heavily on the Shrek franchise has erected another strong tent pole that should prove lucrative and spawn its share of sequels.
Kung Fu Panda features an all-star voice cast that includes Jack Black, Angelina Joile, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogan, Ian McShane, Michael Clarke Duncan and David Cross. Set in ancient China, the story centers on Po (Black), a fat, lazy Panda who toils as a waiter in his father’s noodle restaurant and dreams of living out his Kung Fu fantasies in the shadow of the Jade Palace, home to the most revered martial artists of the day. When he hears that Master Shifu (Hoffman) is ready to name the legendary ‘Dragon Warrior,’ he braves the daunting stairway to the palace and gets more than he bargained for when he is fingered as the chosen one prophesized to defeat a powerful enemy.
Okay, so it’s pretty much the same premise as the Chris Farley live-action comedy Beverly Hills Ninja (I know you watched it), and it bares a strong resemblance to Cartoon Saloon’s animated television series Skunk Fu!, but no one really watches Kung Fu movies for plotline originality. The key to a good martial arts movie lies in the execution, and the team at DreamWorks have managed to strike a good balance between slap-stick comedy and thrilling action. The movie also gives us good characters to get behind, and maintains a certain reverence for the martial arts rather than simply poking fun at them like a lot of catoons do. I’m looking at you, Hong Kong Phooey.
Kung Fu Panda is directed by John Stevenson, who helmed episodes of DreamWorks’ animated NBC series Father of the Pride, and Mark Osborne, second unit director on Paramount/Nickelodeon Movies’ The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie. Melissa Cobb served as producer. Like stealthy warriors, the filmmakers have managed to side-step most of the pitfalls that plague a lot of big Hollywood animated features. The most refreshing thing about the film is that it doesn’t try too hard to be funny. The humor comes fairly naturally through the characters rather than winking nods to modern pop culture, which would have pulled audiences right out of the ancient world that the artists have so meticulously created. It’s sweet without being unbearably cutesy and the action sequences are elaborately staged but not exhausting to the point of boredom.
Black is charming as the title character and McShane (Deadwood) is ominous as the voice of Tai Lung, a former student of Shifu who was spurned and eventually turned to the dark side. Echoes of the Star Wars saga permeate the film as well, especially when the diminutive Shifu trains the doubting Po to be his people’s last hope. There is a lot of room for relationships to be explored more in the inevitable sequel, perhaps a romance between Po and Tigress, the butt-kicking femme fatal voiced by Jolie. The writers could have shoe-horned that element into this installment, but it would have detracted from the main thrust of the movie, which is Po’s rocky love affair with Kung Fu.
Though the 3D animation is top-notch, the film is book-ended by very cool 2D sequences that kind of made me wish the whole film had been done in that style. Perhaps we’ll see more of that included in the DVD as a bonus adventure. How about it, DreamWorks? Don’t make us use the dreaded Wuxi Finger Hold on you.
Paramount Pictures will release Kung Fu Panda in theaters nationwide on June 6. Check out the trailer on AniMagTV (www.animag.tv).