Panda-monium

It’s a story as old as Confucius – an outcast finds his true purpose by just believing in himself.

 

The odds against “Kung Fu Panda” were stacked even higher when it announced that Jack Black was to take the lead role of a bear whose hopes are greater than his environment, for it required nuances of humility, humbleness and modesty – not exactly the top of the preening character actor’s list of personality traits.

 

Somehow, beneath the mounds of digitized fur and flab, though, the animators managed to make Black’s Po a sympathetic, even lovable, lead character.

 

Displeased with his life the noodle-slinging son of a restaurateur, Po pines for the action-packed life of a martial arts master, like his heroes The Furious Five.

 

Eager to catch a glimpse of the “Dragon Master” tournament (apparently the Super Bowl of karate), Po accidentally plops down in the center and is crowned its champion by the supreme elder.

The move comes as a surprise to all – including Po himself – and master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, voicing what looks to be some sort of chinchilla or something), who vows to make Po’s training so arduous, he will not make it past the first day.

 

The Furious Five are also furious, as Tigress (an indistinguishable Angelina Jolie), Monkey (an intelligible Jackie Chan), Viper (a slinky Lucy Liu), Crane (an underused David Cross) and Mantis (played with typical stoner glee by Seth Rogan) feel as though they have studied long enough under Shifu to rightfully claim the title.

 

Meanwhile, in a cavernous underground prison, the evil Tai Lung (played with jocular evil by Ian McShane) escapes and seeks to nab the honor for himself.

 

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!

There are no spoilers in this entire film. You know exactly what’s going to happen if you’re even remotely familiar with any underdog (or panda) story ever.

END SPOILERS

 

But regardless of familiarity, “Kung Fu Panda,” earns its..er..spots with crackerjack pacing and its ability to rely on simplicity rather than stuffing it to the gills with pop-culture references like a certain green ogre that is also under the Dreamworks animation flag.

 

The first half of the film is filled with slapstick shenanigans of Po being placed through various training procedures, which undoubtedly will delight the kiddies. But the second half, while still entertaining, does involve many a fight scene (the title is “Kung Fu Panda,” duh!), and while it preaches violence as a last resort, characters still repeatedly slap the stuffing out of one another. Come to think of it, martial arts films would be a heck of a lot less interesting if leads actually did follow through on all that “violence as a last resort” mumbo jumbo.

 

Front and center of all the digitized destruction is Black, who provides his trademarked slacker-doofus delivery, but instead of seeing him shamelessly arching his eyebrow or flicking out his tongue and making devil horns, we get to watch a cuddly panda (note to Black’s agent, have a panda suit ready for his next three live-action roles). It takes the edge off his more annoying aspects of his performances.

 

Hoffman, on the other hand, produces a full-fledged performance. His diminutive Shifu goes beyond the typical Yoda comparisons and turns his little animated puffball into an anguished-but-loving father figure to the group.

Sadly, the other big names in the cast are for marquee value only, used to lure in parents as if to say “Yes, it’s got talking karate animals, but we also have enough hipster cred to cast David Cross!” “Kung Fu Panda” does not cash in on its secondary talent, but it really does not need to, as the direction from first-timers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson is paced with enough fits of fury, tender bonding and “Three Stooges-like” buffoonery to keep all engaged. (A minor beef – the first few slow motion shots are amusing, but after a dozen or so, it tends to wear out faster than a pair of Po’s trousers.)

 

Visually, “Panda” at times resembles the fluidity and subtlety a Jon J. Muth book (the Caldecott-Award-winning series that features a Zen panda by the name of Stillwater). Other times, it serves as a loving tribute to all those “wire fu” epics by The Shaw Brothers in the early 70s and the visual grace of  “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Most the time, it is happy to sit comfortably in the middle of the road, not reaching for the epic scale of a Pixar film, but putting more into it than your average VeggieTales adventure.

 

As Confucius said: “To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.”

 

~ by usesoapfilm on June 9, 2008.

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