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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 8, 2008

China is one of the oldest cultures in the world, with customs and states dating back over six thousand years. It was an original “cradle of civilization,” and its language system is one of the oldest still in use.

In recent years, however, China has been more renowned for abuses – from the oppression of its own citizens to exporting toxin-laden toys to the West – than advances. Of course, American companies have few reservations about using China’s slave labor manufacturing complexes to knock down production costs, or kissing the government’s a*s to get a shot at 1.2 billion potential consumers. Entertainment firms are no different, with the likes of Disney and Viacom (parent company of Paramount, which distributes DreamWorks Animation) spending huge amounts of money to get a foothold in China’s television and film market.

And while I’d love to use that leaping off point to slag “Kung Fu Panda” as the nefarious byproduct of Viacom’s pandering to a despotic government, it really is just too damn cute. The lead character, Po (Jack Black) is a f*****g panda, after all. And the story itself is as innocuous and bland as such stories usually are: Po is a slacker who works in his father’s soup restaurant in the “Valley of Peace” while dreaming of kung fu glory. His big chance comes when the venerable Master Oogway decides to select the new dragon warrior. Implausibly (of course) Po is selected over such worthy contenders as Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu), while it is left to old uptight Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to train Po.

What’s the rush, you ask? Only that nasty old Tai Lung, Shifu’s former disciple and jilted dragon warrior himself, has escaped. It seems the last time Oogway denied Tai Lung the title he laid waste to the entire valley and was imprisoned. This being a cartoon (and one engineered to give the least amount of offense to a certain country), it wouldn’t do to suggest a creature capable of destroying an entire village might, I don’t know, be put to death or anything.

And so, Shifu reluctantly trains the corpulent hero, who in turn attempts to prove himself to his fellow students before the inevitable showdown with Tai Lung. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.

One thing I will say about “Kung Fu Panda” is that it’s mercifully free of the kind of ephemeral pop culture-dependent humor that’s plagued every previous DreamWorks cartoon, with Black’s “Tenacious D”-isms being the most obviously out of place character elements (and even then, “skadoosh” might be my new favorite word). And honestly, it’s the most entertaining DW Animation project since, well, ever.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t formulaic or dripping with bullshit sentiment about how “everyone can succeed if they just believe in themselves.” I don’t know where this started, but I don’t think it does any service to children to feed them that line of crap. It’s impressive enough to look at, and the voice talent – especially Black and Hoffman – doesn’t disappoint, but all the CGI wankery and high-end talent only barely allows “Kung Fu Panda” to rise above cliché. And with any luck, Viacom will get that Chinese TV contract.

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