By Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
The succinctly named Kung-Fu Panda delivers exactly what its title promises: Lots of kung-fu and lots of panda. The movie has the same lean, to-the-point simplicity, which is refreshing in an era when so many films take needlessly bloated, talky routes into their story (for more on this, see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
Aggressively aimed at children but performed with enough wit and humor to keep adults happily entertained, Kung-Fu Panda marks a break away from the cheap, pop-culture driven films that had become the trademark of DreamWorks Animation, aka The House That Shrek Built. Instead, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (veterans of TV’s King of the Hill) opt for a more timeless style that ensures the film won’t feel passé when your older children are handing down their DVDs to their younger siblings.
Co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, who are obviously fans of Looney Tunes, emphasize slapstick, sight gags and visual humor in this straightforward tale of Po (voiced by Jack Black), a panda bear in ancient China who longs to be a kung-fu champion but is too roly-poly to even get a glimpse of his feet.
Purely by accident, Po is anointed to be the legendary Dragon Warrior destined to defend his village from an attack by the ferocious tiger Tai Lung (Deadwood‘s Ian McShane), who has broken out of a maximum-security prison and defeated the 1,000 guards watching over him.
In order to live up to his questionable destiny, Po becomes the student of the cranky, Yoda-ish wolf Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), whose quintet of formidable warriors, the Furious Five, are resentful of being passed over in favor of Po.
The bulk of Kung-Fu Panda centers on Po’s training at the hands of his exasperated instructors, who try to keep the faith despite the rotund bear’s hopelessly klutzy skills and uncontrollable appetite. Although the five fighters are voiced by the famous likes of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan, the characters are given little to do outside of some phenomenal action sequences.
From an acting perspective, the film is really Black and Hoffman’s show, and they do justice to the inventive computer-animation and gorgeous rural backgrounds the film’s artists have created. Like any worthwhile martial arts picture, Kung-Fu Panda certainly delivers during its fight sequences, and one scene involving dueling chopsticks and some sought-after dumplings is a minor classic of physical ‘toon comedy. But it’s the overriding spirit of the movie that forms its greatest appeal: Here’s a movie that isn’t intent on conquering the world but simply entertaining you for a breezy 90 minutes.
Voices: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Randall Duk Kim, Jackie Chan, Michael Clarke Duncan.
Directors: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne.
Screenwriters: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger.
Producer: Melissa Cobb.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 90 minutes. Mock kung-fu violence.