The new animated comedy and kiddie flick Kung Fu Panda probably seems better than it is on the simple basis of relativity. In other words, there’s enough mere adequacy, middling mediocrity and outright awfulness out there right now that it’s not hard to look good—but don’t sell the Panda short. In any season, this would be a terrific-looking picture. As computer animation goes, this just might be the most striking-looking film yet. Some of the imagery is little short of sublime, sometimes in big, flashy ways, and other times in surprisingly subtle ways. There are moments of spectacle right alongside moments of great delicacy. But its merits don’t end there.
The near genius of the film—big-name stars doing voices to one side—is that it almost completely eschews the snarky postmodern, pop-culture-referencing sensibility that seemed pretty fresh and cheeky when Shrek (2001) first appeared on the scene, but now looks more tired and desperate than a dateless working girl at last call in a dive bar. Seven years of Shrek knockoffs (including last year’s Shrek the Third) have taken a toll. How refreshing it is to encounter a film of this sort where the viewer doesn’t have to know who Shirley Bassey is to get the jokes. (And that comment is coming from a guy who loved the Shirley Bassey joke in Shrek 2 (2004).) The humor here is fairly simple and lightweight, but it grows out of the characters and the situation, with none of that aura of “see how clever and hip we are” weighing it down.
There is a pop-culture side to it all, but it’s an entire genre: the martial-arts movie in all its color-saturated, often glorious absurdity. There’s very little here that conjures up specific scenes—though there are clear echoes of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)—but rather an overall sense of the tropes of the genre. I’d add that the conventions are taken to their illogical extreme, but after Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and The Protector (2005), the only illogical extreme left is the bulk and shape of this film’s hero.
The story line is nothing special (what example of chop-socky cinema is?). Po (voiced by Jack Black) is a fat, rather lazy panda who works in his dad’s (voiced by James Hong, Balls of Fury) noodle shop, but dreams of being the kung-fu master of all time, the Dragon Warrior. (Dad, by the way, is either a crane or stork, which the film appears to be about to explain at one point and then doesn’t.) An accident causes Po to land in just the right place for the ancient temple master—a wizened turtle named Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim, Year of the Fish)—to choose Po as, you guessed it, the prophesied Dragon Warrior. Not surprisingly given their name, this sits badly with the “Furious Five” (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross) and their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a very serious and sarcastic red panda. But they accede to the temple master—while being determined to drive Po off.
Nothing that follows is apt to surprise anyone other than very young children. The plot is given some urgency when the villainous leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) escapes from his maximum-security prison. Tai goes after the scroll that rightfully belongs to the Dragon Warrior and will afford him great power. The plot is slim and simple, but it works. For that matter, its final message could be viewed as a subversive variant on the standard “believe in yourself” kid-flick message.
There are some shortcomings. Of the pricier names in the voice cast, only Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman really get anything of note to do, which is fine for the story—especially since the pair have terrific chemistry—but might disappoint fans of the others. Supporting performers like Randall Duk Kim and James Hong are, in fact, better served. The script has a weird out-of-left-field moment (involving Oogway) about a third of the way through that goes for an emotional punch the film hasn’t earned and doesn’t achieve. And personally, I’d have liked a little more closure involving the climactic battle. But all of this is almost needless carping with a film this engaging and visually stunning. Rated PG for sequences of martial-arts action.