||Except for an opening dream sequence, which is portrayed in ersatz antique art style, the computer-generated animation in this new DreamWorks picture is first-rate, with backgrounds of a mountainous Chinese countryside that are often strikingly lovely. It’s a pity that the script doesn’t measure up to the images. “Kung Fu Panda” is yet another tale of a misfit who follows his dream and succeeds by being true to himself despite the obstacles put in his way, and some of the twists it adds to the stale formula are a mite peculiar. Moreover the dialogue provided by writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger is distinctly short on wit, leaving it to the voice talent to add whatever punch they can—with only variable success. The result is just a middling entry in the animated kidflick stable, which in spite of starring another lovably roly-poly hero is certainly no “Shrek.”
In this case the young fellow the urchins in the audience are intended to identify with is a panda called Po (Jack Black), who serves as an inept waiter in the noodle diner of his father, a goose named Ping (James Hong). But Po’s real love is kung-fu, even though his tendency to clumsiness would suggest it’s a skill he could never master. That doesn’t stop him from going to a public ceremony at the great mountaintop temple where grand master Oogway the Turtle (Randall Duk Kim) is to identify the eagerly-awaited Dragon Warrior, a legendary appointment expected to go to one of the so-called Furious Five trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a small but dexterous wolf. They’re Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen).
Of course, Oogway’s choice instead falls on stumblebum Po, whom Shifu and his students consider a hopeless case. And since word comes that the country’s most feared villain, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane)—an orphan whom Shifu had trained from a cub years earlier but turned mean when he wasn’t chosen as Dragon Warrior—has escaped from a gloomy prison constructed especially for him, despite the presence of a thousand guards to prevent it, and is making his way homeward, the situation quickly becomes urgent. Can Shifu train Po expeditiously to take on Tai Lung? And will the secret of the Dragon Scroll that’s bequeathed to Po tell him how to win against such a prodigious foe?
Suffice it to say that Po proves far more proficient than anybody—including Po—ever expected (except, of course, for the prescient Oogway), and all, especially Shifu, learn an important lesson about not judging a bear by his pot-belly. But though the overall message to the effect that a person has to be himself is clear enough (and certainly unexceptionable), the way it’s delivered here is rather weird: the key to Shifu’s training Po in the niceties of kung-fu turns out to be his insatiable appetite for cookies and dumplings—something that, in era when childhood obesity has become a major health issue, is at the very least curious. And while one expects a lot of hand-to-hand combat in a martial arts movie, it can certainly be argued that there’s too much of it here, especially since it gets surprisingly nasty at times. Of course the extravagant combat is splashy and spectacular, but in animated form it’s no more impressive than the CGI stuff that’s being done in live-action fightfests nowadays, and both are ironically much less so than the no-wires, no-visual effects stunts that Tony Jaa does.
The overabundance of sock-it-to-’em action makes it even harder than it would otherwise be for the voice talent to shine. The best of the lot are Hoffman, whose sly, dry delivery makes the most of his tepid lines, and veteran Hong, who has the single best bit when Ping seems about to explain to Po how a goose could be the father of a bear (a question that’s likely to be in your mind from the first reel). Kim also has fun with the fortune-cookie pronouncements of Oogway, which he treats with a tongue-in-cheek tone that the writers might not have entirely intended. McShane brings a lot of intensity to the villain (who visually isn’t all that interesting, unfortunately) but there’s not much humor to be found in such a dark character. On the other hand, casting the Furious Five with star names would have been understandable had they been provided with anything memorable to say; they haven’t. And as is his custom, Black holds nothing back; even off-screen he seems to be mugging ferociously. Despite that, though, the bear will certainly make a great plush toy.
So “Kung Fu Panda” is certainly good-looking, and in some of the voices and brief snatches of dialogue it has its moments. But the slam-bang fight footage is excessive, in every sense, and ultimately a bit tedious, and the feel-good message isn’t just old-hat but in this case odd. In terms of the recent competition, it ends up in the same league as “Surf’s Up,” another misfit-makes-good movie with nifty visuals but a sodden script. And the truth about these animated pictures is the same as it is with live-action ones: in the final analysis it’s the writing that matters most.