“Kung Fu Panda” is flawed in many of the places you’d expect, but it is surprisingly successful in other areas. It packs an unexpected wallop in key dramatic scenes, and the film isn’t shy about the kicks and the punches. The kung fu hurts in this film as much as its PG rating will allow. As a result, the film fails as a comedy but is successful as an action picture, and occasionally as a drama.
A bit of plot: In ancient China, Po (Jack Black, giving a more realistic and human performance than he usually does when playing a live-action human being) is an overweight and over-eating panda bear. Although his father (James Hong, a national treasure as always) hopes and prays that his son will follow in his footsteps as a noodle cook, Po has a yearning for kung fu. When the day comes for the legendary “dragon warrior” to be chosen, he sneaks into the ceremony to see the spectacle. As ancient master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) waits to decide among the five most likely contenders, Po watches through a peephole in anticipation. Although Master Shufu (Dustin Hoffman in his best work since “Stranger Than Fiction”) presumes that the chosen one will be among his five favorite students, fate plays a hand, and Po is miraculously chosen as the vaulted Dragon Warrior. Now a disgruntled Shufu must train Po in the ways of kung fu before the murderous Tai Ling (Ian McShane) escapes his prison cell and attempts to take his revenge on Shufu.
The set-up for what I have just described is a little loose and not a little dull. Most of the feared Jack Black over-the-top comic antics occur in the first act, and the film suffers from his usual buffoonery. But once Po is chosen and once Tai Ling is introduced, the picture kicks into gear. Ling’s prison is a wonderfully imaginative visual and his escape rivals any action scene in “Speed Racer” or “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.”
In fact, despite the fact that this is a “kids cartoon,” it is credible as a martial arts adventure. The fight scenes, when they arrive, are long, brutal and dramatically potent. They are real throw downs, with the benefit of superior animation, which allows the flying and leaping to be that much more possible and plausible. Tai Ling is given a true menace and a multi-layered back story that connects him very personally and sympathetically with Master Shufu (his origin is similar to Anakin Skywalker or Jade Fox in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The major showdown between Shufu and Tai Ling is emotionally charged, surprisingly violent, and completely compelling.
Also making the film work is the truly stellar vocal work of the main characters. Dustin Hoffman turns in a beautifully shaded and subtle read, portraying the tragedy of a teacher who cannot show love to his pupils because he blames love for his greatest failure. Ian McShane is truly intimidating, adopting a low-key Michael Wincott villainy. His back story and his subsequent actions allow us to fear and sympathize with him, which adds an element of pathos to what follows.
The main fault is the lack of real arcs to the Fatal Five, the prize pupils of Shufu who each represent a specialized type of kung fu. Angelina Jolie voices Tigress, Jackie Chan voices Monkey, Lucy Lui voices Viper, Seth Rogan voices Mantis, and David Cross voices Crane. Yet only Tigress gets the slightest arc and the other four performers get a total of maybe twenty lines of dialogue combined. On the plus side, Randall Duk Kim gets a terrifically moving final scene with Hoffman.
Befitting the high budget and prestige of DreamWorks animation, much of the animation is beyond gorgeous, appearing to be truly 3-dimensional even on a 2D IMAX screen. Shot in 2.35:1 scope, this is perhaps the most visually arresting cartoon that DreamWorks has ever made, and the authentic Chinese locations rival Ratatouille for visual splendor.
“Kung Fu Panda” is not a masterpiece, but it is easily one of the best DreamWorks cartoons in their canon. It is not as good as “Over The Hedge,” or the first two “Shrek” films, but it is about as good as “Antz,” and it easily surpasses anything else they’ve made. The expected lowbrow Jack Black bumbling is present and accounted for, but the film eventually moves past that and settles in as a credible action cartoon with several surprisingly potent dramatic scenes and a few terrific action set-pieces. In short, “Kung Fu Panda” kicks ample amounts of butt.