I Know Kung Fu

In DreamWorks funny and charming Kung Fu Panda, the titular black-and-white bear is Po (Jack Black), son of noodle-selling father Mr. Ping (James Hong) with secret dreams of becoming a kung-fu expert like his heroes, The Furious Five. One day, the Kung Fu Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a premonition that the evil snow leopard warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will escape prison and destroy the town unless a warrior is chosen to stop him. Tai Lung is a former student of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), the trainer of the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Through a series of misfortunes, the mystical Oogway picks Po as the champion, and so begins a familiar, but inherently entertaining, story of overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams.

In real life, Black’s incessant jabbering has made him an increasingly difficult presence but in animated form his childish, high-tempo act suits the simple-hearted, easy-to-assemble Po, requiring little more than gumption, crisis and the battle for glory to construct a worthy hero. From the outset, Kung Fu Panda is a winning combination of knockabout farce, ticklesome one-liners, easily digested lectures and blur-motion fight sequences. It’s a wuxia story that’s a framework for jokes, not the other way around. The period setting eliminates any of the incessant pop culture references that blot other animations, and there is no discernable trace of the self-aware cynicism that can find its way into the new wave of digital cartoons, aimed squarely at the audience’s more worldly chaperones. Kung Fu Panda is innocent entertainment, a cartoon first and foremost.

And what an attractive animation it is. The opening dream sequence is a striking, Samurai Jack inspired arrangement of blacks and reds, swooping shapes and punchy action. The character designs are extraordinarily charming. Po has a waddling walk and big-boned presence, dwarfing his tiny Yoda-like mentor and clashing with his team of limber animal ninjas, their distinctive moves taken from the fighting styles they represent. The animators have crafted an array of beautifully lit, artfully composed background vistas, peopled with a constant rhubarb of sweetly observed villagers –pigs and ducks and rabbits. It is DreamWorks’ best-looking movie so far, stunningly rendered and presented with obvious affection for the long history of Asian martial arts cinema.

Pixar’s eco-themed Wall-E is likely to steal much of this bumptious film’s thunder, but if kids are looking to see both, grown-ups shouldn’t complain.

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