If you like Jack Black, you’ll probably enjoy the film. If you don’t like Black, can you at least enjoy Dustin Hoffman giving him a hard time, old timer?
Legend tells of a Dragon Warrior, a master of kung fu who will defeat villainy and is heir to the knowledge contained within the revered Dragon Scroll. Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) has trained five warriors to fulfill this position when the time to choose is at hand: Tigress (voice Angelina Jolie), Viper (voice Lucy Liu), Crane (voice David Cross), Monkey (voice Jackie Chan), and Mantis (voice Seth Rogen). When a clumsy panda named Po (voice of Jack Black) is chosen to be the Dragon Warrior instead, Shifu is sure his own master has chosen wrong. After all, the panda knows no actual kung fu, is vastly overweight, and can barely stop eating long enough to train…
DreamWorks Animation has pretty much enjoyed the luck of success. While Shrek became an instant classic making fun of other classics while itself following the same formula, the sequels have been composed of rapid-fire pop-culture gags substituted for story; the same can be said for Madagascar (although those penguins are pretty entertaining all by themselves), Bee Movie, and especially Shark Tale. Over the Hedge was based on original material, and storywise it carried a little more weight than the rest. But it hasn’t been until Kung Fu Panda that DA has finally capitalized on the elusive formula that makes Disney’s Pixar work stand out from the rest: the right combination of real story and true character.
Most of this hinges on the interaction between Jack Black’s “Po” and Dustin Hoffman’s “Shifu.” Po is all about the prestige of being what he’s always dreamed of but having no idea how achieve it. Shifu initially can’t see past Po’s obvious shortcomings to see anything worthy of a kung fu master, but as Po refuses to quit (an admirable trait all by itself), Shifu comes to recognize the potential in Po that a lesser master (or anyone, for that matter) would fail to acknowledge. It’s a powerful message delivered brilliantly and far less trite than you would imagine. How they got there no one may know, but somehow Dreamworks Animation has finally managed to touch the brass ring of animated storytelling that has been exclusively in Pixar’s reach for over a decade.
The film is also more grounded in Chinese culture than you might think, from a clever reworking of the Dreamworks Animation logo to use of classic elements recently redefined in Jet Li and Jackie Chan’s The Forbidden Kingdom. The all-star cast is mostly unrecognizable while in character and underutilized except for promotional purposes, all with the notable exception of Lo Pan himself, James Hong, playing Po’s over-enthusiastic noddle-peddling father. Not everyone can take center stage in an ensemble production such as this, but the core of Black, Hoffman, top-notch animation and a really good story elevates Kung Fu Panda to the legendary and forbidden Gates of Pixar, and that’s no small feat (even for the Dragon Warrior).
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)