I love a surprise, even a small one like finding out that Kung Fu Panda was more likeable and fun than I might have expected. I have a secret mini-crush on Jack Black (okay, maybe not so secret), so I was hoping that Kung Fu Panda wouldn't suck and if nothing else, I'd be able to enjoy his vocal stylings in the Dreamworks animated film. Surprise! I liked the movie for more reasons than Jack Black.
Black voices the title character, Po, who helps in his father's noodle shop but dreams of becoming a kung fu fighter and joining the Furious Five: Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie). He wants to watch the Five compete to be the great Dragon Warrior, and is somehow dragged into the selection process himself. Kung-fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is irritated that a fat clumsy clown of a panda is joining his elite cadre of students, especially since it's predicted that the supremely evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) may escape from prison and try to steal the Dragon Warrior scroll of power for himself. In other words, Kung Fu Panda uses the same sort of plot found in many martial arts movies, but with a comic element, also not unusual in kung-fu movies. The plot twist of having a character who is unsuccessful at garden-variety kung fu try something fitted especially for their character, especially if it's funny, is not a new one (Drunken Master, for example), but it can still mine a lot of laughs. This film demonstrates dumpling-fu, chopstick-fu, and even noodle-fu -- again, this been done before in real kung-fu films, but martial arts food fights never grow old.
The biggest drawback of Kung Fu Panda for martial-arts fans is that you don't get the visceral enjoyment of watching humans perform stupendous fighting moves. Still, it's a nice way to introduce kids to the kung-fu genre. The cast and crew are experienced in delivering a satisfying comedy, and the film went all-out in celebrity voice talent for the film. Besides the cast listed above, supporting roles are filled by Michael Clarke Duncan, Wayne Knight, and naturally, Tenacious D partner Kyle Gass. I wish we'd heard more dialogue from some of the Furious Five -- Angelina Jolie and David Cross get most of the lines.
The opening sequence of Kung Fu Panda is rendered in beautiful traditional animation, and I was instantly hooked ... only to receive a nasty shock in the second scene where we discover we've been watching a dream sequence, and the rest of the movie will feature standard 3-D animation. The animators have tried -- the backgrounds are often very pretty, and one sequence with peach blossoms in the wind is especially striking -- but I simply don't like the way most of the animals look in this animation style, it's ugly and weird, without the style you see in Pixar films. On the other hand, using 3-D does improve the fight sequences by giving them more realism and weight -- when a character plummets to the ground, cratering himself, it's more satisfying than it might be in traditional animation. Fans of the traditional style should stay for the lovely closing credits ... and since the movie is less than 90 minutes long that's hardly a hardship. (Besides, there's a post-credit coda that's sweet, although not mandatory to enjoy the film.)
Kung Fu Panda is cute, sweet, fun for kids, and amusing enough to keep grownups from growing restless or bored. The inevitable message/lesson for kids isn't slammed in your face, thankfully. The movie is relatively free from the bodily-function jokes and pop-culture references that are the trademark humor of Dreamworks' most profitable animated films, the Shrek series ... which depending on your sense of humor will be disappointing or a pleasant surprise. And have I mentioned it's only 88 minutes long? After a summer of films crashing the two-hour barrier, I could give Kung Fu Panda a big old bear hug.
For more on Kung Fu Panda, see James' review from Cannes