Rating: 3 stars
Art and shameless commerce don’t usually intersect, but they do (sort of) in Kung Fu Panda. In many ways, the film feels like it was created by some harried Dreamworks exec in a focus group. I can see his notes now . . .
1. Cuddly panda bear: check
2. Kid-fave Jack Black: check
3. Under-achiever makes good: check
4. Kung fu, which kids love? (Note to self: Look up returns on Forbidden Kingdom. Ahhhhh, $21.5 million in its first week): check.
But at the same time, the film has a warmth and a playfulness about it—not to mention some truly beautiful animation—that suggest it was made with great care, even love.
The story focuses on Po (voiced by Jack Black), a portly panda being raised by his noodle maker father, who is a goose. (In one of the film’s clever touches, it’s not clear that Po knows he’s adopted.) Po fantasizes about being a kung fu hero and his dreams are realized when, through a series of comic mishaps, he is taken to be the Dragon Warrior, a mystical, messiah-like figure, meant to conquer the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane).
Of course, the kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a small red panda, is none too pleased with his clumsy (and hungry) new charge. Neither are the would-be Dragon Warriors, a.k.a. the Furious Five, a tiger, monkey, praying mantis, viper, and giant crane, voiced by a variety of unnecessary, if perfectly able, superstars (Angelina Jolie plays the tiger; Jackie Chan is the monkey, Seth Rogan is the praying mantis, etc.)
Will Po win the respect of Shifu and the Furious Five? Will he learn to embrace his pot-belly? Will his father let him put down the noodle cart and carry out his dreams?
There are no surprises here, just an expertly executed family film, with a sublimely silly Jack Black in the lead, and at least one scene—where Shifu and Po playfully fight for the last dumpling—that would be at home alongside any animated classic.