It's important not to approach "Kung Fu Panda" as just another animated, talking critter film. That's what it looks like and has been advertised as, but really to appreciate it best one must consider it more in the genre of which it's truly a unique addition: the action picture.
The new DreamWorks film follows the rise of Po (Jack Black,) a panda who works in his father's noodle restaurant but dreams of mastering the art of kung fu and joining the legendary Furious Five, the village's defenders. The Five - Monkey (Jackie Chan,) Viper (Lucy Liu,) Crane (David Cross,) Mantis (Seth Rogen,) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie) - are trained by Head Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman,) a red panda, and his mentor Ancient Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim,) a tortoise.
When Oogway announces he will decide who shall be named the Dragon Warrior the village is sent into a frenzy of excitement. Unfortunately Po is the last to arrive and is accidentally locked out. Then, through a few twists of fate and his own determination to see the kung fu warriors, Po stumbles into the middle of the presentation just as master Oogway is pointing his finger at who will become the Dragon Warrior. The universe apparently has decided that the fat, lazy, untrained panda will be the village's hero.
Po is excited by the chance to enter the world of his heroes. He's discouraged, though, when he finds the Furious Five resent him and Master Shifu strives to drive him away. Things grow even more difficult when his title of Dragon Warrior is put to the test with the escape of Tai Lung (Ian McShane,) a snow leopard former pupil of Shifu who seeks vengeance.
I was initially somewhat discouraged by the picture. Sure, it looks good, it's a cute premise, and it's never dull. It certainly wasn't bad, but it lacked the strong, memorable characters of the "Shrek" films - clearly DreamWorks' most successful franchise - and the originality of the Pixar movies. Po is a likable protagonist and Jack Black isn't too over the top as he can be sometimes. He's just doesn't stand out, though. As far as animated characters that we remember and cherish he's just not one of them. He's not a Woody ("Toy Story,") a Remy ("Ratatouille,") a Z ("Antz,") or what I strongly anticipate Wall-E to be. (We'll find out June 27th.)
None of the other characters really have enough time to make much of an impression either. The Furious Five are all voiced by well-known actors but it's all for naught since they don't have the opportunity to really develop the characters. Likewise the villain Tai Lung is generic and the masters Oogway and Shifu are pretty predictable and clichéd.
Theme-wise the film is pretty lacking too. The message of the least likely diamond in the rough saving everyone is one that's been done many times before just as well if not better.
"Kung Fu Panda" also intentionally avoided the pop culture and celebrity references of many computer animated films - not necessarily a bad thing given the movie's style but it's one less leg on which for it to stand.
All that criticism should be put to the side, though. It's OK and acceptable that the characters are mediocre, the story is predictable, and it's not really saying anything new. Why? Because it's an action picture!
If the action's good enough then only minimally functioning characters/plot/themes are necessary. And that's really the case with "Kung Fu Panda." It can truly be treated as and enjoyed as a visual experience, the action taken in as though it were ballet. You just sit and appreciate the endlessly cool action sequences. Taken on that level and understood as basically a new thing - the computer animated action movie - the film is a definite success and bound to be satisfying to both children and adults.
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