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Kung Fu Panda   B

Paramount / DreamWorks Animation

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, Lucy Lui, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Dan Fogler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jackie Chan.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Wait a minute, you're a panda?! He's a panda!"

You can forgive the assembled throngs of criticdom if they approach Kung Fu Panda with the same mixture of derision and disbelief as its villain Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane). I mean seriously, what's to like? The depressingly routine advertising campaign promises a terminal case of studio thinking at its worst. We sensed nothing but a clichéd story stuck together with characters selected for their ability to look good on a Burger King glass and foisted off with the exasperating excuse that -- because it's for the kiddies -- no one needs to care about the quality onscreen. So like Tai Lung, we waltzed arrogantly up to it, snorting with contempt and daring it to give us its best shot.

We'll be with you just as soon as we finish picking the bits of wall out of our teeth.

Which isn't to say that you should throw out your copies of Snow White or Finding Nemo anytime soon. Corporate product Kung Fu Panda is and corporate product it remains. Its onscreen figures do look like toy tie-ins first and characters second. Its "believe in yourself" message is echoed by every other family movie of the last 20 years. And if the opening 10 minutes -- in which Po the Panda (Jack Black) dreams about life as a kung fu hero while working in the noodle shack run by his misunderstanding adoptive father (James Hong) -- doesn't fill you with the urge to scream, then your tolerance for hackneyed screenwriting convention is far higher than mine. And yet somewhere in there, the cynical packaging and phony emotions fall away, leaving a funny, energetic, and surprisingly sweet movie in its wake.

Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson place Po in a cartoon animal version of wuxia China, where each species fills a specific social niche. The peasants are pigs, geese and rabbits, while an army of rhino soldiers (led by Michael Clarke Duncan) guard evil snow leopard Tai Lung in his dungeon prison. The martial artists who defend the realm match their particular fighting style: Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Snake (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) fears the return of Tai Lung -- a former student gone bad, natch -- and Shifu's master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) proclaims a tournament to see who is mighty enough to stand against the encroaching bad guy. A twist of fate, however, lands Po that particular honor (the reasons why are complicated, but fireworks are involved) and although no one thinks the doughy wannabe has what it takes -- least of all Po himself -- Oogway's Yoda-esque certainty at the choice silences all opposition.

None of it sounds encouraging, but the directors find the right mixture of slapstick, satire, and affection to bring out the best in their material. Much of the comedy relies on Black's patented overeager underachiever routine, which fits Po's CGI girth like a glove. More importantly, Kung Fu Panda refrains from indulging in undue hipness. Though the dialogue is contemporary (and often very funny), it avoids pop culture references and contemporary in-jokes of the Shrek variety. That brings cohesion to its plush toy universe without reducing the proceedings to a constant shill for our approval. The landscapes are gorgeous, to be sure, but the fact that the filmmakers respect the genre they are parodying sells Kung Fu Panda as much as the imagery itself.

The same concept applies to both the omnipresent humor and the copious amounts of kung fu on display. Physical pratfalls abound and while the vocal cast displays a good sense of timing, it's the animators who have to sell us on most of the gags. They make exquisite use of the various characters' funky physiology, mixed with enough Keatonesque acrobatics to tie it all back to the martial arts conceits. Similarly, the fight scenes are full of fun and imagination, displaying plenty of cartoon broadness but retaining a core of reasonably plausible combat techniques. The action remains exciting yet PG-friendly, and none of the mayhem detracts from an overall tone of sunny optimism. That blend keeps Kung Fu Panda remarkably light on its feet, and while Chan is a fairly minor figure here, the film neatly matches the signature ethos of his best work.

Beyond that, it simply lacks the pretense to ever be disagreeable. It wants very much to entertain us and it knows how to do it without insulting our intelligence. The messages it packs into its little story -- don't judge a book by its cover, magic comes more from belief than fact, etc. -- are fairly shopworn, but they work well enough here to excuse any hint of cliché. Osborne and Stevenson never push them too hard either, which imbues Kung Fu Panda with a modest but genuine heart. As popcorn fun goes, we're unlikely to find a more pleasant surprise all year, even though it never rises above that equation. And simple entertainment can be misleading, of course. Dismiss it too quickly, and it might catch you unawares: a hell of a rope-a-dope for those who know how to pull it off. Kung Fu Panda does, and I for one, have rarely been happier to be proven wrong.

Review published 06.08.2008.

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