It’s strange to behold a CG-animated film that leads with a swift pace and can manage to unfurl a laborious morale without grinding the whole production to a halt. “Kung Fu Panda” is a real charmer; a lightweight, generously funny family film that benefits from simplicity and a buffet of Asian cinema influences to pick from.
Giant panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) is stuck in his role as the son of a popular noodle chef. Frustrated, Po dreams of becoming a kung fu master, marveling at the skills of his idols The Furious Five: Crane (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). When a happy accident leaves Po crowned the “Dragon Warrior,” an infuriated Shifu vows to never let Po survive the first day of training. However, once word spreads that villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has broken out of prison and vows to destroy everything in his path, Po could very well be the only hero able to defeat Lung and save the land.
“Kung Fu Panda” has an enormous amount of fun with itself. A genial takeoff of kung fu cinema, “Panda” takes great delight twisting known clichés around with a bumbling lead character, whose head-crackin’ ambition is only outmatched by his appetite. I found the film to be a wonderful antidote to Pixar’s artistic stasis; it’s a routine feature, but executed with an engorged heart and a real eagerness to please, not just trying to pluck heartstrings at predetermined stops and reach for the brass ring of timelessness. “Panda” is a cartoon in all the best, most satisfying meanings of the word, and I really couldn’t resist its joviality and silly spirit.
That essence is provided in great part by the voice cast, led by a dominating Jack Black. If there’s any actor born for animated voice work, it’s Black, and he infuses Po with a childlike Baby Huey quality that blends well with the character’s physical limitations. Po is a standard-issue dreamer, but Black gives the panda a wide-eyed life, finding the sympathies of the kung fu clown, while also rocketing forward with generous spastic Blackisms when Po slips into combat mode. It’s a lovely piece of acting, even if it’s a touch familiar. Because of Black, Po is a welcome pudgy lethal weapon. His Achilles heel? Steps.
Also a delight in a smaller role is acting veteran James Hong, here voicing Po’s noodle-slinging father. Hong hits the right notes of parental disbelief and concern: a father who wants what’s best for his child, as long as that means taking on the family business. It’s a performance of squealy high notes that offers the character subtle comedic gems.
Younger audiences will surely respond to Po’s continual buffoonish antics, but directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson pay close attention to the action beats, especially the sensation of speed and gravity-defying martial art gymnastics. We’re talking karate-chopping animals here and “Panda” spends plenty of time tracking the limber moves of the Furious Five, and Po’s far more destructive learning curve. Overall, “Panda” is a visually sedate picture (at least in the competitive CG-animated rat race), leaving the dynamics of the animation to burst forth when the conflict heats up and the filmmakers can play around with anime, Shaw Brothers, and Wachowski visual touches.
While it doesn’t insist too much, the message of Po’s personal worth is a kindly touch wedged comfortably between the fall-down-and-go-boom and the fists of furry. It’s a tender cap on an extremely entertaining animated feature, hoisting “Kung Fu Panda” above the traditional tiresome matinee diversion into something I’m fairly certain will please parents and tickle kids mercilessly.