Jack Black is always best when he’s asked to play... Jack Black. Fortunately in Kung Fu Panda, that is exactly what he is asked to do. In this DreamWorks animated film about, well, a panda that practices, uh, kung fu, Jack Black is at his Jack Blackiest. It’s the part he was born to play.
Black is the schlepy Po, who works at his father’s (James Wong) noodle stand in the Valley of Peace. The Valley of Peace is in China. I know this because at several points in the movie, Po mentions that they all live in China. You wouldn’t know if from the way the characters talk or look, but, trust me, it’s China. Po dreams of nothing but being a kick-ass kung fu warrior like his heroes, the “Furious Five.” He’s the ultimate fan-boy with an action figure collection of his animal heroes and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to kung fu and the Five.
Like most fan-boys though, Po is both fat and lacking in any actual ability in the thing he loves. When the local martial arts masters, Oogway the Turtle (Randall Duk Kim) and Shifu the Some Kind of Animal (Dustin Hoffman), decide that it is time for the Dragon Warrior to be chosen from among the Five, Po climbs the temple steps (in a funny recurring bit about his lack of physical stamina) to see the festivities. Somehow, and you knew this was coming, he is chosen by Oogway to become the Dragon Warrior and fight the ferocious baddie, Tai Lung (Ian McShane.)
There is a lot of great humor and action as Po attempts to learn something, anything, about kung fu from the reluctant Shifu. Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson never let the action wane without tossing in a joke, either visual or verbal. They also make sure not to allow the supposed ancient Chinese setting of their characters get in the way of something funny. Osborne and Stevenson avoid the topical humor which is makes a movie like Shrek seem quickly outdated, but keep that modern sensibility when they let Jack be Jack. It isn’t Po responding to one of Shifu’s comments; it’s JB in his full Tenacious D/Dewey Finn/Award Presenter glory. Fueled by the script from former King of the Hill writers Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel, there are moments that blew up the kid-heavy audience I saw the movie with. Don’t worry, although the humor is broad enough for the kids it doesn’t leave out adults.
Naturally, the whole story leads to one of those training montages we see anytime an inexperienced character finally “gets it.” We also get one of those standard “believe in yourself” morals that usually makes me wretch. Fortunately, these stale plot staples are dropped lightly among a lot of kick-ass action and well timed laughs. The action itself is thrilling, with beautiful and creative battles. It doesn’t quite reach the point of jaw-dropping, but it’s one of the more visually appealing martial arts movies, animated or not, in awhile. Almost too visually appealing at times, as the action frequently comes so fast and furious that it threatens to wear down the audience. The tradeoff here is that there aren’t a lot of pace killing pauses to drag the movie down. This is fun for fun’s sake mostly, and if you learn a nice lesson too, so be it.
With Kung Fu Panda’s heavy emphasis on action and Black’s humor, there’s bound to be something that gets the short shrift. In this movie, it’s the Furious Five. Although they are voiced by fairly big names (Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Jackie Chan as Monkey, Seth Rogen as Mantis, Lucy Liu as Viper, and David Cross as Crane), the characters don’t really distinguish themselves. In fact, other than Cross’ distinctive voice, I didn’t realize who was voicing them until after the movie was over and the credits rolled. That’s when I wondered why the barely understandable Jackie Chan was given voice work.
The film’s less than exciting supporting characters don’t do much damage to what is just a flat out enjoyable, exciting, and funny movie geared for a wide range of ages. It doesn’t stand up next to the best of Pixar or classic Disney, but Kung Fu Panda leaves many of the other animated furry animal movies of the last few years in the dust.