Po is a Chinese noodle shop worker whose consuming passion is kung fu. There are only a few obstacles standing in the way of his dream of becoming a martial arts master. 1) His father expects him to take over the family restaurant. 2) He doesn't actually know kung fu. And 3) He's a panda. And a portly, sluggish, uncoordinated one at that.
But Po is the protagonist of a children's movie, and just the sort of underdog (under-bear?) that families love to cheer for. Fortunately for the movie, he's also funny, likable, and supremely well animated.
Po lives in an ancient Chinese town (The Valley of Peace) populated exclusively by talking animals. His heroes are the "Furious Five," a group of martial arts masters who just happen to embody the five animal forms traditionally taught in Shen Lung Kung Fu: monkey, mantis, crane, snake and tigress. When word comes that the village's deadly archenemy, an incredibly powerful and vicious snow leopard named Tai Lung, is expected to attack, the Wise Master Oogway (a very old turtle, naturally) decrees that it is time for an ancient prophecy to be fulfilled. One skilled individual will become the "Dragon Warrior" and realize his destiny by defeating Tai Lung. Will it be Monkey, Mantis, Crane, Viper the Snake, or Tigress? When the selection ritual begins, Po exerts a great deal of effort trying to scale the courtyard wall in order to watch the proceedings. Through a series of slapstick mishaps, he inadvertently finds himself designated the Chosen One. Hilarity—and lots and lots of really cool fighting—ensues.
The oafish-guy-attempts-a-lithe-sport premise has been mined before, most similarly in Beverly Hills Ninja, a fairly awful Chris Farley vehicle that managed to stomp all the fun out of the concept. (More recently, The Forbidden Kingdom featured a klutzy teen—a martial arts movie geek with no skills of the sort—finding his way into a few ninja frays.) Kung Fu Panda handles the set-up adeptly, and has the added benefit of existing in a post-Matrix world in which slow-motion fight sequences featuring animated critters are inherently funny. Screenplay writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (both contributors to TV's King of the Hill) maintain an engaging tone by keeping Po winsomely good-natured in the midst of his trials. When the Furious Five do their best to crush the panda, he wants to keep the resulting rubble as a souvenir. And when he stumbles into inevitable gaffes, like eating heartily from the sacred peach tree or washing "his pits" with water from The Sea of Forgotten Tears, his mix of haplessness and remorse is more lovable than pitiable.
It also helps that Po is voiced rather terrifically by Jack Black. In fact, Po's character, body language and facial expressions are so evocative of Black himself it's hard to remember that the actor is not in fact a rotund panda. Black has a gift for giving schleppy "losers" both a likeable vulnerability and a sardonic edge, and his persona is put to good use here. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong as well, particularly Dustin Hoffman as the exasperated master teacher Shifu (a crotchety red panda with Ernest Borgnine's eyebrows) and Ian McShane as the enthusiastically evil Tai Lung.
Kung Fu Panda's basic storylines are more than a little familiar. A misfit discovers he can live in his own skin (or fur)—and even be a hero!—if he only believes in himself. An underdog beats a bully. Rivals learn to be friends. Fortunately, these messages are handled lightly and quickly. The film's pacing is fairly relentless, alternating funny bits with breath-taking whiz-bang fight sequences; there's never time to get bored or to think too much about where we've heard the clichés before. And the movie looks great. The animation is inspired; the eyes and fur of many of the creatures are particularly striking and mesmerizing. And the Asian setting is a refreshing and visually rewarding change of pace.
A few elements of Kung Fu Panda may be worrisome to parents, particularly those of young children. The numerous fight sequences are quite violent, although I can't recall any scenes in which anyone actually dies (even though they should, given what happens to them). And the Eastern context for the film gives the filmmakers a chance to spruce up their "you-can-do-it" plotline with some vague mysticism about destiny and personal fulfillment. Their work here is a little sloppy, but no less generic and potentially anti-theistic than the usual children's fare.
Kung Fu Panda is a good-natured, entertaining romp and, in my experience, not a bad kid discussion-starter. You can't ask much more from an animated panda kung fu movie than that.Discussion starters
- Po discovered that there is "no secret ingredient, just yourself." Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
- Destiny is a powerful idea in Kung Fu Panda. Do you believe that every individual has a specific purpose or vocation?
- Po's dad tells him "To make something special, you just have to believe it's special." Have you found that to be true? Are there objective standards of worth and "specialness"?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Kung Fu Panda is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action, which are extended and frequent. Care seems to have been taken to show that even the most pummeled character is still breathing, although some critters take pretty serious beatings. I was concerned that my own children (ages 10 and 6) might find the action too intense, but they informed me it was more "funny" than "scary." Families comfortable with mid-level Saturday morning cartoon violence will likely be OK. Overall the film is quite wholesome, with a few earthy references. When Po is hit in the crotch he refers mournfully to his "tenders," and in another scene he briefly holds two noodle bowls in a position that goofily suggests breasts. Some parents may be troubled by the "just believe in yourself" mentality that drives the story; our own family found this to be an excellent discussion starter.
Photos © Copyright DreamWorks Animation
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