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'Kung Fu Panda' Movie Review

Everybody/Animal was Kung Fu Fighting

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

By

'Kung Fu Panda' Movie Review

Jack Black provides the voice of Po in 'Kung Fu Panda.'

The moral of DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda is to believe in yourself, not a bad lesson for kids to learn (or adults for that matter). Loaded with high flying kung fu action, this animal-filled animated pic will keep youngsters in their seats. Unfortunately, adults might get a bit fidgety despite the film’s relatively short 90 minute running time. Kung Fu Panda plays out a lot like a slew of other feel-good family friendly films, and that could turn off or at least lessen the enjoyment of older audiences. But kids most likely won’t care one bit about whether this road’s been gone down multiple times before.
First time feature film directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne do a competent job of keeping the story flowing, obviously always aware of their target audience. The martial arts action seems to overwhelm the story, but since it’s kids who are going to be begging their parents to buy tickets and not the other way around, the fact that the action drives the film -- rather than character development and plot -- shouldn’t present a problem at the box office.

The Story

Po the panda (Jack Black) is an enthusiastic kung fu groupie who dreams of fighting alongside his heroes, the Furious Five. By day, Po works in his dad’s noodle shop. But at night the panda’s dreams are full of kung fu adventures where he takes on the bad guys side by side with Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu). Po longs to train with Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a strange looking creature in charge of the Furious Five and the mentor martial arts enthusiasts want to have as a guide in their kung fu studies.

But there’s one or two or maybe 100 reasons why Po’s dreams might never come true. He doesn’t know even the basic kung fu moves. He’s klutzy and easily distracted, and he’s severely overweight - even for a giant panda. Po loves food and it loves him right back, so his chance of ever being accepted into Master Shifu’s group appears to be about as likely as landing a spokesperson spot for a fitness center.

© DreamWorks Animation
However, unlikely as it may seem, an ancient turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) names Po as the new Dragon Warrior. This news doesn’t sit well with members of the Furious Five who were all in the running for the title until Po interrupted their Dragon Warrior ceremony. Meanwhile, a vengeful tiger named Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who years earlier had turned to the dark side after being denied the Dragon Warrior title he believed he deserved, escapes from his heavily guarded prison cell. His goal: to exact his revenge on Shifu and his followers. Now it’s time for a showdown between the brand spanking new Dragon Warrior and the astonishingly skilled and highly lethal Tai Lung. In order to conquer his enemy, Po must first understand the philosophy behind kung fu and learn what it really takes to be the Dragon Warrior.

The Voice Cast

Jack Black’s voice is perfect for the part of the goofy Po, and it’s totally possible to imagine Black in the recording studio reading his lines while doing kung fu moves. The actors who bring the Furious Five to life are okay, but there’s nothing really outstanding about their voice work that sets any one of them apart from the pack. Even Angelina Jolie's distinct voice is strangely flat.

Ian McShane gives the character of Tai Lung just the right menacing edge, however it’s Dustin Hoffman who really stands out. Hoffman is pitch perfect as a master of kung fu who very reluctantly takes on an out-of-shape panda who’s training process includes a lot of food rewards (one of the best scenes from the film is a battle between Po and Shifu over a bowl of dumplings). If only it was easy to figure out what species of animal Hoffman’s Shifu is supposed to be. Is it a fox? A mouse? Some folks even see a little bit of wolf in there. The official word is that Shifu is a small red panda.

My opinion of what sort of animal he was changed throughout the film, and I found it distracting not knowing what he was supposed to be. It might have been helpful to have one of his followers mention he’s a red panda somewhere in the movie. It’s also never explained why the citizens of this Chinese town are pigs and bunnies, or why Po’s dad is a goose. Distractions are never a good thing when you’re trying to get into a movie, even an animated comedy featuring a wide variety of animals into martial arts, and I found myself wondering about the choice of animals and getting pulled out of the film.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) in 'Kung Fu Panda.'

© DreamWorks Animation
The Bottom Line

Po’s the only character with any sort of arc although, again, kids won’t care one iota about that aspect of the film. The story’s incredibly simple and straightforward, and Po’s transformation from daydreaming noodle shop worker to a skilled kung fu practitioner unfolds with few surprises.

As basic as the story is, the animation itself is simply gorgeous. The kung fu action fairly flies off the screen, with some heart-stopping sequences in which you forget you’re watching animated animals square off. Set in China, the background scenery beautifully captures the environment with lush mountains and vivid colors.

Overall, Kung Fu Panda’s an entertaining yet forgettable addition to the animated movie genre, although I’m sure there will be a batch of kids who’ll beg to differ with me on that point. Kids will definitely get a kick out of Po’s lovable personality and may even try out their own kung fu moves on the way out of the theater.

Good but not great, Kung Fu Panda doesn't engage the adult audience in the way Ratatouille, Surf's Up or even Horton Hears a Who did. Nonetheless Kung Fu Panda should satisfy families looking for a colorful, action-packed movie that's purely escapist fare.

GRADE: B-

Kung Fu Panda is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action.

Theatrical Release Date: June 6, 2008

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