I’m usually of the opinion that DreamWorks’ animation releases overall water-down the Kool-Aid of animation films. When compared with Pixar, whose vast efforts behind their films almost oozes from the screen, DreamWorks always seemed more like it was cashing in on the idea that bright colors and animals delivering fart jokes would put kids’ butts in theater seats. So I was extremely skeptical when I started seeing previews for ‘Kung-Fu Panda.’ I was of the mindset that this was just another attempt to subliminally convince kids to hound their parents for panda toys with kung-fu grip. I was also wrong.
‘Kung-Fu Panda’ is a wonderful film about a panda named Po. Po works in his family’s noodle shop, selling noodles but dreaming of becoming a kung-fu warrior. When Po learns that there will be a tournament held to choose the next Dragon Warrior, Po sneaks away to catch a glimpse of this once in a lifetime event. And, as you probably guessed, is labeled the chosen one. The story follows Po as he faces the adversity from his new peers, Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane, who all believe they should have become the next Dragon Warrior. They have trained all of their lives under the tutelage of Master Shifu, who also feels that the slow, fat, constantly hungry panda was chosen by mistake. The trouble is that Tai Lung, Master Shifu’s greatest student turned evil-doer, has escaped from prison and is ready to do whatever it takes to steal the Dragon Scroll and take the title of Dragon Warrior, a title he feels he is owed. So the real Dragon Warrior needs to stand up sooner than later. ‘Kung-Fu Panda’ follows the training of Po to become the warrior he has inside and readies him for an ultimate battle against Tai Lung.
‘Kung-Fu Panda’ is a simple film that covers the standard bases of most martial arts underdog films. What makes this film special is how it embraces its heart. What kid (or, let’s face it, adult) doesn’t dream of being something bigger than they think they are? Po is the embodiment of that little round kid in the audience, staring up at the movie before them and wanting to be that action star. Wanting to be that musician. Wanting to be that whatever. ‘Kung-Fu Panda’ instantly relates to that idea and puts Po and the viewer amidst the nay-saying world and shows how being yourself and following your dreams can ultimately lead you to where you want to go. And the movie is pretty damn funny, too. Jack Black stars as Po and does an excellent job of embodying the large, excited Panda as well as the small, timid Po. His performance is only topped by Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, whose voice is practically unrecognizable, as Master Shifu. The rest of the cast does an adequate job. I was surprised to learn that the film actually starred Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Angelina Jolie and Seth Rogan as they were hardly given any lines in the film (Angelina as Tigress aside). But this story is about Po. And Jack Black delivers. And you know what else delivers? The action. There are some legit good martial arts in this film. The opening sequence was amazing and somewhat reminiscent of the Cartoon Network series, ‘Samurai Jack.’ The fight between the Furious Five and Tai Lung on the suspension bridge was just amazing. And while the final fight scene between Po and Tai Lung wasn’t as grand or epic as the bridge scene, it was stellar in its bringing together the heart with the action. Through and through, this film was a solid entry into the annals of animated action movies.
‘Kung-Fu Panda’ is a fun film that doesn’t quite hit the great mark, but settles nicely into the really good and the totally better than expected. This film, like Po, shows hope in DreamWorks’ collection of films that are all about flash and gimmicks, but none of whom can get over themselves enough to become the one. ‘Kung-Fu Panda’ rises to the occasion and is a welcome change of pace from the standard summer animation fare.