It's surprising that Hollywood has taken until 2008 to come up with Kung Fu Panda. Taking your factory-issue period-piece martial arts plot -- wherein schlubby protagonist finds his inner warrior as a means of expressing filial piety and ensuring the harmonious survival of his village -- and combining it with supercharged computer animation, PG-friendly combat, and a flurry of cute animals just makes good business sense. One could argue about the logic of surrounding Jackie Chan
(voicing a monkey who's also a kung fu master) with a Hollywood stew of A-list talent eager to scoop up some easy voice-actor money, but when the film's star is an overweight panda voiced by Jack Black
, such kvetching is almost beside the point.
Blazing across the screen with eye-popping, sublime artwork, Kung Fu Panda sets itself apart from the modern domestic animation trend with its sheer beauty. From an opening dream sequence whose abstract style seems culled straight from a modern manga, the film enters instant classic status as some of the most gorgeous animation Hollywood has produced since the golden age of Disney. Eschewing the cold and severe art of Dreamworks' Shrek films, the makers of Kung Fu Panda fill the screen with painterly backdrops of mountain vistas and fluttering leaves that give Zhang Yimou a run for his money. It somehow makes it all the funnier to have the titular panda, Po (Black), come huffing and wheezing through the impeccable and non-specific ancient China landscapes like a less-active relative of Hurley on Lost. Article continues below
The story is that Po wants to be a kung fu master but is stuck instead working at the noodle shop run by his father, a tender-hearted goose (James Hong
) whose real relationship to Po is left unexplained (a nicely humorous touch). The village, composed mostly of large-faced and telegenic animals like rabbits and pigs, is threatened by the prophesized return of the dreaded snow leopard villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane, given little to do with an underwritten stock role). Fortunately for Po, there's a kung fu temple called the Jade Palace high above the village (cue many scenes in which Po wheezingly hauls his pudgy frame up the vertiginous staircase), where the aging master Oogway has deemed that Po is in fact not a lard-reared slacker but the Dragon Warrior of legend who will save the village.
Standing at first between Po and his future as a chubby warrior of destiny, however, is not Tai Lung but the star pupils at the Jade Palace, a jealous menagerie of kung fu animal superstars composed of Tigress (Angelina Jolie
), Crane (David Cross
), Mantis (Seth Rogen
), Viper (Lucy Liu
), and Monkey (Chan). Trained by master Shifu, a diminutive red panda voiced with appropriately embittered edge by Dustin Hoffman
, as a lightning-quick squad of kung-fu-coolness, the five resent the panda-come-lately and don't make things easy. Wouldn't you know: Po makes them reconsider their assumptions, and learns a few things about himself, and the true meaning of courage along the way, particularly after the lightning-quick and merciless Tai Lung shows up.
What helps Kung Fu Panda succeed is not just the classic beauty of the animation but also another way it avoids the Shrek pitfall by steering clear of that series' flat irony and tired snark. Po's journey to enlightened martial arts coolness is modeled quite explicitly on old Chan-style films like Drunken Master (the fighting style that Po eventually takes on is actually a more PG-friendly variation of that used by Chan), where family unity and service to the community is prized above all.
Also like Drunken Master, Kung Fu Panda never lets all that wisdom-gathering slow down the pace, and keeps the fights and jokes coming at a wicked pace. It also allows Black to make Po just enough of his own creation to make him stand out from a million other animated heroes. Along the way Black even gets to utter a trademark phrase; after vanquishing a host of enemies and being asked by some grateful villagers what they can do to repay him, he says merely, "There is no charge for awesomeness." Indeed.