KUNG FU PANDA
The title says it all with Kung Fu Panda, an appropriately upbeat if occasionally flat account of a panda who wants to be a hero. As voiced by Jack Black, the panda Po is just about the whole show, apart from a few nifty action sequences and an impressive production design that makes good use of Chinese art. Kids will find the film's fighting more fun than its tepid sermonizing. Parents who aren't Jack Black fans will just have to grit their teeth for much of the movie.
The structure, character and premise of Kung Fu Panda remain fairly true to martial-arts conventions. Despite his weight problem and lack of coordination, Po dreams of being a kung fu master. However, he cannot achieve his goal without learning valuable lessons about life: loyalty, discipline, perseverance, obedience, etc. Some of these are imparted by Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), an elderly turtle with a fondness for fortune-cookie aphorisms. The more practical matters of leaps, kicks and punches are handled by the diminutive and irritable Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
Po trains at the same facility as his idols, the Furious Five, essentially cameo roles voiced by big-name stars like Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan. Ian McShane is the suitably sinister voice of Tai Lung, who breaks out of a mountain prison to threaten Po and his village with devastation. But the focus of the film is firmly on Po, in particular his training. While they are intended to be funny, his martial-arts drills seem repetitive, as well as a bit too painful.
A fight on a rope bridge between Tai Lung and the Furious Five is one of the best sequences in the film. Crisply edited, with inventive stunts, it shows just how closely the filmmakers have followed the martial-arts formula. Still, watching combat that has been drawn can never have the same impact as physical interplay between real humans. And lacking strong personalities, the Furious Five may as well be computer icons. But what's really missing from Kung Fu Panda is a sense of humor. Apart from some obvious pratfalls, actual jokes are almost nonexistent. Black tries to make up for their absence by overplaying his material, with mixed results. On the one hand, it's refreshing to see an animated feature that doesn't rely on pop-culture references; on the other, Jack Black grunting and groaning for 90 minutes can test anyone's patience.
From its opening sequence—done in 2D animation that evokes Samurai Jack—to its meticulous backgrounds and imaginative settings, Kung Fu Panda is an unusually beautiful film to watch. It may not be the most original animated feature, but it is a solid, well-crafted one.
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