June 5, 2008

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Kung Fu Panda (PG)
Jack Black is a martial arts fanboy who, despite his bearish physique, gives his all to becoming the ultimate warrior in Kung Fu Panda, a sweet and zany animated firecracker.

Kung Fu Panda likes its China the way that The Forbidden Kingdom, the Jet Li/Jackie Chan bit of enjoyable silliness from earlier this year, does. It’s all dragons and fireworks and Zen masters. OK, so it’s a little more Chinese restaurant than authentic Chinese. This kind of giddy love of kung fu — married in both cases with a “believe in yourself” message — is fun.

Po (voiced by Black) loves kung fu, loves it so much he dreams about it and about being a masterful warrior, one who even outshines — but, you know, can still totally hang out with — The Furious Five, a famous group of kung fu warriors. Of course, when he wakes up from that dream, it’s all noodles and broth because Po works for his dad, who only thinks of soup. When it’s announced that Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is going to pick the Dragon Warrior, a prophesied protector of the people, at a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony, Po’s dad gets excited because it will be a great opportunity to sell some soup up at the temple. Po, however, ditches the soup (he hauls the soup cart up about two of the zillion steps to the top of the temple before abandoning it) and tries to get in to see all the kung fu action. By the time he reaches the top of the stairs, the doors have already shut, so he goes through a variety of Looney-Tunes-esque attempts to scale the wall until several dozen fireworks tied to a chair eventually do the trick. He’s up, up and over the wall, way over the wall, so that when he comes down it’s with a splat, right in front of the Furious Five, one of whom was sure to be picked as Dragon Warrior. Except, of course, that when Oogway pointed his finger at “the One,” it was Po who landed in front of it.

The Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Lui) and Crane (David Cross) — are now all the more furious, particularly Tigress, who believed she was a sure thing to be picked as Dragon Warrior. Don’t worry, their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), tells them. Shifu, tasked by his master Oogway with training the Dragon Warrior, plans to go all Biggest Loser on Po in hopes of getting him to quit. And it’s not just about seeing to it that one of the Five is chosen for the all-important Dragon Warrior position; the Dragon Warrior, Oogway foresees, will soon have to fight Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a onetime student of Shifu’s who is now bent on destruction.

Po is the Everybear; he’s the fat kid who wanted to be the superhero but secretly feared he’d never fit into the suit, whose self-doubt is soothed with the application of cookies and candy bars. The movie even brings up Po’s tendency to eat when nervous. I tend to be suspicious of anything that looks like it might turn both affirming and motivational (equal parts “it’s OK to be who you are” and “you can lose that weight, little camper”) but Kung Fu Panda actually does a good job with the chubbiness subplot. It manages to make one’s round-tummyed inner child feel like she too could fight a vengeful tiger while subtly suggesting that a few sit-ups never killed anybody.

Po is also an Everyfan — like most of the kids who will end up seeing this movie, he has the posters and the action figures of his favorite characters (in this case, the masters of kung fu that are the Furious Five). Black is very good at embodying the starstruck side of Po, which is important because if we didn’t believe that the Five and their masters are Po’s heroes, we couldn’t believe that he’d be willing to put up with the pressure of his warrior training. Very nearly a cartoon character himself in some of his live action movies, Jack Black is here able to give his animated character depth and personality.

Po gets most of this movie’s spotlights but the supporting characters turn in good performances too, particularly Hoffman as the not-totally-believing-in-Po trainer, and McShane, who gives his villain a sharp edge. Quite sharp, actually; between his voice and his character’s appearance (we see him mostly in a blue shadow with focus on his glowing yellow eyes), Tai Lung seemed to terrify some of the younger members of the audience with whom I saw this movie.

Older kids (I’d guess at least kindergarten or older), reveled in the tubby panda jokes, laughing hysterically every time Po huffed and puffed his way up the temple stairs. Fight scenes where the out-of-shape Po is bounced from one training station to the next produced similar glee. Without being too spazzy, Kung Fu Panda seemed to enrapture most of its young audience.

And, without being too sarcastic, it didn’t torture its older audience. All this goofiness is still funny even if you are old enough to drive to the theater. Black and company (but, let’s face it, the success of this really rests on Black) manage to keep the humor fast and occasionally witty. Kung Fu Panda is truly an enjoyable family movie, with just enough sparkling color and martial arts joy to light up the theater. B+

Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action. Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, Kung Fu Panda is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount. This DreamWorks Animation movie will open wide on Friday, June 6.