Wow, this was a lot better than I expected. It’s like a Sammo Hung kung fu movie with animals. If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, he’s a chubby kung fu goofball who palled up with Jackie Chan several times and has many great Hong Kong fooey movies to his own credit. With subtle titles like Enter the Fat Dragon, you know what you’re getting into. Kung Fu Panda has some of the same spirit and manages to be more of a kung fu movie than just a kid movie, and that- along with an excellent voice cast- is what makes it worthwhile.
Jack Black plays Po, a panda who works at his father’s noodle shop. His father, Mr. Ping, is a rather goofy-looking duck voiced by the irreplaceable James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner) who even managed to make Balls of Fury tolerable. Ping’s “secret ingredient noodle soup” is thw town favorite, so Po is too busy slinging noodles to learn kung fu. When he hears that the Shaolin Temple will be choosing the Dragon Warrior- the only disciple worthy of viewing the secrets of the legendary Dragon Scroll- he must attend, but of course Pops wants him to go and sell noodles outside.
The Shaolin Temple is where Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wizened red panda teaches his disciples, the Furious Five (not Grandmaster Flash’s band, either). They are Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Monkey, and Viper, after the 5 fighting styles of Shaolin. They are played by Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu respectively- and all relatively on the down-low, letting their characters speak for themselves, you could say (if anyone steals the show, it’s David Cross’s Crane). Shifu is concerned that his old enemy, Tai Lung- a warrior so fearsome that an entire prison manned with rhino guards was constructed to contain him- may be plotting to escape. He wishes to give one of his students the knowledge of the Dragon Scroll, to be ready for the inevitable battle.
Po lugs his noodle cart up the mountain’s endless stairs, and through his clumsy attempts at viewing the choosing of the Dragon Warrior, his fat black ‘n white butt ends up in the middle of the ceremony. And of course, the wise elder Oogway- an ancient turtle, who like all kung fu masters, looks frail and slow but has powers that Yoda would envy- chooses the lowly fat panda to be the Dragon Warrior. Can such a lazy, gluttonous kung fu fanboy be trained to fight at all? Can he convince Master Shifu to take him seriously?
From here on it reminded me a lot of Jackie Chan’s earlier kung fu comedies like Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and the original Drunken Master. There is plenty of character-based humor and wordplay to keep the adults laughing while the slapstick keeps the kiddies rolling. Po is hapless and helpless. Sure, he’s a kung fu fanboy but he is beaten by a training dummy. But he’s got what fighters call “heart,” because he never gives up. Even when he probably should. When Tai Lung escapes (of course), Shifu has no choice but to train him.
The story is nothing new- it’s like a hundred kung fu films where the unlikely, destined warrior must be trained to defeat the undefeatable, but in Kung Fu Panda the humor, stunningly gorgeous backgrounds and catchy character designs, and the characters themselves make it shine. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is the one who must redeem himself, in a change of pace- Po will always be Po, and just needs to believe in himself, as disciples must. Po’s Daddy Duck Mr. Ping- who we at first expect to be a joke, or be the Angry Dad who wants to ruin his dreams- also gets a touching layer of depth that will make you stop wondering how he fathered a panda in the first place.
The animation is quite good, and while the battles are a little less exciting when you’ve seen Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which brings them to such a level of ridiculousness that even animation can’t top them, but the training sequences are both funny and exhilarating. There’s a fight over a dumpling that is so perfect that you’ll know they watched many, many classic old kung fu flicks and loved them before embarking on this project. And that’s what made the movie for me- sure, it’s not at the level of Pixar, but like Horton Hears a Who!, it strives for that level of excellence. Unlike Horton, it doesn’t quite reach it story-wise, but it’s still a blast and much better than I expected. Few, if any pop culture references, and the stars play characters, not themselves.
For example Ian McShane (Deadwood, Hot Rod) plays Tai Lung- a power-hungry warrior who’s not evil, or even misunderstood- but when we find out why he wants that Dragon Scroll so badly, he’s a character, not just a Bad Guy. But of course, whether you will like or hate this movie really depends on what you think of Jack Black- he’s more self-effacing here than in his usual persona, as in Tenacious D, but if you find him grating this movie is not for you. I found Po refreshing after Black’s habit of playing (with) himself, and his timing is perfect. Ebert complained that he isn’t charismatic enough, but that’s sort of the joke- I wouldn’t want to be around Jeff Lebowski all the time either.