Review: Kung Fu Panda
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
I am not a Jack Black fan. With his repetitive, hyperactive acting and literally large presence, I find the in-demand comic overbearing and abrasive. So you can imagine my state of perplexity when I emerged from not one, but two of his most recent films with a great, big smile on my face. The first was February's wonderfully whimsical Be Kind Rewind, in which Black plays the bumbling half of a pair of do-it-yourself video makers. The second is now DreamWorks Animation's action-packed Kung Fu Panda, which stars Black as the voice of, well, a panda who practices kung fu. After some careful analysis, I've found the answer to the conundrum: Jack Black's movies are best served with a Jack Black filter.
The filter in Rewind is not only the imagination of fanciful director Michel Gondry, but also co-star Mos Def, whose silky-smooth performance style is in such stark contrast to Black's, it's like listening to Pure Moods after head-banging to Metallica. In Panda, there's the more obvious buffer of animation; for although Black is certainly credited as the lead, his usual, full-on assault has been reduced to voice-only.
Or so, one would think. As Po the Panda, Black plays a portly, wise-cracking creature who refuses to let his detractors get him down. Surprisingly, it's not the actor in a fuzzy, black and white costume. It's the latest CG creation from the studio behind Shrek and Shark Tale (which also featured Black as the voice of a reluctant Great White born to a family of gilled gangsters). Po is not reluctant, but determined, held back only by the debilitating effects of his tremendous appetite. A devout fan of martial arts, he longs to meet his heroes, the Furious Five, who train under the wise Master Shifu in a palace high above the Valley of Peace where Po lives in his father's noodle shop. The Five (who, as the Crane, the Mantis, the Monkey, the Cobra and the Tiger, are the animal embodiments of ancient Chinese fighting styles) are awaiting the announcement of one of their group as the legendary Dragon Warrior, who is supposedly destined to help the valley live up to its name. When Po unexpectedly “lands” the position, he becomes the bouncy, hungry, new kid on the block, who eventually must learn the ways of his paladins in order to protect his homeland from the dreaded, reprobate leopard Tai Lung.
There are no human characters in Kung Fu Panda, no handsome prince who happens to talk to the animals. In pure, unadulterated, kid movie fashion, everyone is an animal. Pigs make up most of the valley's rabble, Po's father is a duck (a component that is teased with, but never given an age-of-adoption explanation), and Shifu (voiced with a stern charm by Dustin Hoffman) is some hybrid of a raccoon and a rat with Fu Manchu whiskers. Angelina Jolie (another Shark Tale alum) lends her smoky, sophisticated vocals to the Tiger, or, Tigress, which may speak for the bracket of karate-chopping girls, but did we really need another cartoon character backed by her sexy pipes? More suitable is “Arrested Development”'s David Cross as the ironically schleppy Crane, Lucy Liu as the sweet and sinewy Cobra (whoa, typecasting!), and a pitch-perfect Ian McShane as the villainous Tai Lung. Ferocious yet articulate, McShane breathes fire through his role, and shows what a fine actor can do with meaty voice work. I suppose the same could be argued for Black, who really was born to be Po, if playing oafy, animated panda bears is indeed something to which actors aspire.
The Asian influence found in Panda's design serves its atmosphere and environments well, giving them natural beauty and graphic flair in equal amounts. Petals flutter off of peach blossoms like windswept confetti, against a star-speckled sky with a moon that at one point illuminates the Furious Five in silhouette like a Zen Bat-Signal. The influence comes through in the movie's surprisingly high octane action sequences as well, as does that of previous martial arts-inspired flicks like The Matrix, Star Wars, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet Panda's quirky plot is original enough to bypass any rip-off accusations. Had anyone told me that the scraps on display here would incorporate the Wachowski Brothers' exhaustively parodied “bullet time” technique, I may have been inclined to bring a brown paper bag to the screening. But from gorgeous wide angles and with children's fantasy characters, the slow-mo shooting style is amusing (watch for a nifty chop stick duel and a pulse-quickening prison escape) and more acceptable than, say, the tacky fights in The Matrix Reloaded that appear to have been lifted from a Play Station console.
It's the humor in Panda that's lacking, which for a comedy, is not good news. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger do create a fun, dry, believable exchange between the unrefined Po and the erudite Shifu (who, on the topic of influences, could easily be the lovechild of Yoda and Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and the kids will love it nonetheless. But after the thirtieth fat joke, the shallowness of the screenwriting duo's bag of tricks becomes evident. And therein lies the issue of the movie's mixed messages. While Po's unlikely rise to heroism promotes perseverance and self-acceptance, it's a little too ardent in saying that it's okay to be unhealthily overweight. The last thing America's obesity-stricken youth needs is a green light to order another Happy Meal. Here's hoping they leave Kung Fu Panda ready to sign up for karate, and not to high-tail it to McDonald's.