by Jeff Meyers
There's no better endorsement for a kid's film than your 6-year-old exclaiming, "that was awesome" as the final credits roll, followed by an enthusiastic recounting of all the "best" parts peppered, of course, with questions about the more confusing elements of the narrative ("How come the panda's dad is a goose?").
Though it boasts a calculated, standard-issue plotline about achieving whatever you want as long as you believe in yourself, Kung Fu Panda is hugely entertaining, gorgeously animated and expertly cast, with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman doing some of their best work in recent memory (no joke). More importantly, Dreamworks has finally made a computer-animated film that doesn't rely on scatological humor and an endless succession of self-reflexive pop culture jokes to earn its laughs.
A delightfully drowsy Black voices potbellied Po, the panda who works at his dad's noodle shop while dreaming of someday fighting alongside China's "awesomest" kung fu warriors, the Furious Five. In the mountain temple that looms above his town, Zen master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a vision that the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from his impenetrable prison and wreak havoc, so he summons kung fu master Shifu (Hoffman) and his warrior students — Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) — to choose the Dragon Warrior who will defend them. As you might guess, fate intervenes and Po is accidentally selected. Shifu is instructed to prepare the portly panda for the coming battle and it's soon discovered that Po's profound ineptitude is only outdone by his bottomless resilience. Beneath the fat and fur beats the heart of a true warrior, if only the kung fu masters would see.
Though it's not the first kids' film to tackle body image, Kung Fu Panda does it with verve, portraying Po as an unabashed glutton. He's fat, he knows he's fat and he has no intention of being anything else. Shifu's eventual decision to use food as a reward for training will undoubtedly rankle carb-conscious parents, but the script makes clever use of the conceit, culminating in one of the movie's best sequences: a frantic showdown with chopsticks over a lone dumpling.
More interestingly, the lesson behind Po's final ascension seems informed more by Buddhist principles — play to your strengths, accept the bad with the good — than the Protestant work ethic that is typically foisted upon moviegoing kiddies.
Ultimately, what will win over the tykes is the incredible animation — a lush palette of oriental colors and design — and the brilliantly choreographed action scenes. In what is clearly homage to a variety of chop-sockey flicks, Kung Fu Panda is filled with a half-dozen exciting battles. Tai Lung's prison break and his climactic showdown with Po are particularly spectacular as the movie cannily undercuts its melodramatic "kung fu" story with well-placed jokes. As Po delivers his final "death blow," he hilariously exhales a "Skidoosh!" Some might question the value of watching cartoon characters exchange blows, but now that Jackie Chan is too long in the tooth to do much more than banter with Chris Tucker, why not have a CGI monkey stand-in fight in his place?
It's rare that a film with almost no original bones in its body can still pull you in, make you care about the characters and send you grinning out of the theater. Maybe there's more to Kung Fu Panda's simpleton message — "To make something special, you just have to believe it's special." — than meets the eye.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.