The first two Shrek films aside, DreamWorks long has been a computer-animation grasshopper to Pixar’s wise sensei. A pattern of pop-culture references and crashing-cymbal frenzy style made for decent, disposable entertainment, but only one truly memorable movie (2006’s Over the Hedge).
What a refreshing surprise, then, that DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda — ripe for repetition of “Kung Fu Fighting” remixes or awkward anachronistic references to Jackie Chan or Jet Li, is a surprisingly patient and powerful family film.
Sure, a panda’s jiggling butt cheeks squish an opponent’s head in slow motion, but there’s also a grace, beauty and unbridled respect for kung fu as both spiritual discipline and filmmaking fodder. Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne certainly know all parts of this ancient Chinese art. Teamwork, honor and humility are strong components, as are the perils of pride over perseverance.
Exhilarating acrobatic scenes of combat offer no quarter to any live-action rivals in the adrenaline department. And this is DreamWorks’ most beautifully animated film yet, with influences ranging from impressionism to manga’s deep shadows and sharp-stab brushstrokes.
The lone hint of pop-culture obsession is internalized in Po — an overweight, clumsy, nervous and compulsive-eating panda who’s as much a gourmand for kung fu as he clearly is for kung pao chicken. Jack Black is the perfect voice choice for Po, punctuating sentences with the comedian’s typically giddy, gravelly spins of bravado and tapping into the character’s joy all at once.
Po dreams of fighting alongside the Furious Five: Monkey (Chan); Tigress (Angelina Jolie); Viper (Lucy Liu); Crane (David Cross); and Mantis (Seth Rogen). These warriors’ Grandmaster Flash, as it were, is Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a tiny red panda sensei with a troubled past that’s thrown off his inner peace. Yet Po must settle for the reality of serving noodle dishes alongside his goose father (James Hong) and collecting Furious Five action figures.
When Shifu’s former protégé, the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), escapes his cavernous prison (in a thrillingly fluid sequence), Po’s valley is threatened. And it’s only natural that the Dragon Warrior — long prophesized by the valley’s tortoise elder Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the only one able to defeat Tai Lung — will be one of the Furious Five.
After bungling into a ceremony to name the Dragon Warrior, Po finds that Oogway has tapped him as the chosen one to fight Tai Lung. It’s much to the chagrin of the Furious Five and Shifu, enraged at having to train an oafish newcomer. And the film wisely raises the stakes with Tia Lung by showing just how cunning and formidable Po’s foe will be. (A note to parents with toddlers: Po is hit hard and often, but his bounce-back ability and indomitable will are part of the film’s charm.)
Kung Fu Panda’s kaleidoscopic animation is bright and boisterous without ever feeling too busy, and its lavish detail almost makes some of its characters’ scraggly hair take on a tactile Muppet feel. Plus, there is much shrewdly staged slapstick to make kids squeal, namely Po’s attempt to enter the ceremony and a master-student training sequence involving a dumpling.
The script also is infused, though, with prototypical but potent kung-fu movie ideas of tenacity, destiny and redemption (for so many characters besides Po). It becomes so much more than a predictable tract against underestimating the powers of a hefty panda.
There is tender parental concern on several fronts and warriors struggling to reclaim their sense of learning as a lifelong process. Such dramatic weight might make kids squiggle in their seats at times, but parents will appreciate such balance to silly scenes where Po shoves peaches in his mouth or Shifu tells him “we do not wash our pits in the pool of sacred tears.”
To paraphrase “Kung Fu Fighting” — mercifully heard only once, and in tweaked end-credit form by Gnarls Barkley — it’s fast as lightning and a little bit frightening but done with expert timing.