Kung Fu Panda
and Mark Osborne
Written by Jonathan Aibel
and Glenn Berger
Voices by Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu
and Jackie Chan
Everybody loves kung-fu fighting, but we absolutely adore pandas. And why not? They're endangered, smartly decorated and reassuringly vegetarian. Kids everywhere, adults too, are crazy about them. That's why China can get away with leasing them to foreign zoos for $1-million (U.S.) a year.
Not only are the black and white creatures popular, they're way up there on the anthropomorphic ladder. Did you know pandas have opposable thumbs? It's a wonder DreamWorks made them wait in line behind ogres (the Shrek series) and insects ( Bee Movie) before doing their CGI panda movie.
Well, it's here now, and the good news is that Kung Fu Panda unfolds like a magical storybook, just the way children like. The film recreates the broken-tooth mountains of the Li River Valley to spectacular effect. Panda's storyline is also sturdily kid-friendly, though hardly original. A peaceful Chinese village is threatened by a grouchy snow leopard (voiced by Ian McShane). Their only hope is hopeless - Po, a roly-poly panda who loves kung-fu fighting, but not as much as he loves steamed dumplings and fat, lush peaches.
And so we have the essential ingredients of the modern kid-flick parable: A fantastic, other-world setting in which an awkward child hopes to summon the hero within. All he has to do is believe in himself.
That's hard to do because Po the panda is a nerd extraordinaire, with a bad habit of dreaming out loud, performing a play-by-play of imagined heroics, even as those around him cringe. Po does all this because he's anxious to escape his secret shame, because he's irrepressibly exuberant, but most of all because he's voiced by Jack Black, an actor who believes comic acting to be an Olympic event.
Kids will love Black's Po. Pop-eyed stuttering and reckless slapstick always go over big with wee ones. Parent chaperones, however, may grow tired of Black's relentless class clowning - behaviour that will remind them of their own charges when they've had too much birthday cake.
Older viewers might also gripe about the film's non-supportive supporting cast. Angelina Jolie (a tigress), Seth Rogen (a praying mantis), Lucy Liu (a viper), David Cross (a crane) and Jackie Chan (a monkey) voice the Furious Five: kung-fu superstars who eventually befriend Po. None of the bunch, however, is the least bit fun. Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, Po's impatient instructor, doesn't bring a lot to the party either.
This doesn't mean Panda misses its target audience. Kids will love Black's panda-monium act. The colours are vivid; the scenery, spectacular. And the film does lift off on several occasions. The best scene here is a knowing send up/tribute to Hong Kong chopsocky films: a funny, athletic sequence that has Master Shifu (a Chinese raccoon) and Po clawing high in the air with chopsticks in quest of an escaped dumpling.
On the other paw, it must be said that the film lacks the comic ingenuity of the best in CGI critter movies. It's not fun-for-the-whole-family, like Shrek. Still, it's a howl and amazement for anyone under 12. As is often the way with middling kids' movies, parents who grow tired of the film are treated to a satisfying consolation prize: watching their children have fun.