Tasty Chop Fooey
Never underestimate the potential of a couch potato, certainly not if he's played by Jack Black. That's the take-away from Kung Fu Panda, an animated morsel about a martial arts fanbear named Po who becomes a corpulent karate kid on the way to fulfilling his destiny as a warrior in ancient China.
Demonstrating the power of a healthy appetite, layers of protective fat, and pratfalls, the satiating cartoon rides into the multiplex on the back of a voracious hype machine. It feels as if every available platform was used to pump up youngsters with anticipation, including the seven-year-old boy in this critic's household. (A promotional tie-in with the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games must be forthcoming.)
These targeted young consumers will probably expect more humor, or at least jokes they haven't seen in the Nickelodeon ads. On the bright side, they'll learn an important lesson about movie marketing -- "Of course they put all the funniest bits in the commercials, junior." -- and be sufficiently entertained by the colorful visuals, chop-chop action sequences, and the concept of an action hero with snacking issues.
Panda Po has been made-to-measure for Black and a good balance is struck between insecure misfit and overconfident bounder. Toiling away in his father's noodle shop, Po is a student of kung fu lore and even collects action figures of the Furious Five -- Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen) Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). This fighting quintet is being trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) in the palace perched high above the Valley of Peace where Po resides.
While his father grooms him to take over the business, Po dreams of martial arts glory and gets his chance when, to everyone's surprise, he's selected as the Dragon Warrior over one of the Furious Five. His inevitable challenge will be squaring off against Shifu's fallen favorite, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who escapes from a custom-built prison in the movie's most exciting scene.
With no natural aptitude for kung fu and the physique of a Sumo wrestler, Po's primary weapon on this journey is his indestructibility. Second is the dexterity he displays when scrounging for food, a characteristic the skeptical Shifu learns to exploit while molding him into a fighting machine. Mouth-watering comestibles, dumplings mainly, are the perfect pedagogical tool.
Despite the heightened expectations about its comic potential, Kung Fu Panda is not a case of false advertising. It contains ample slapstick and enough mystical apercus to honor and, in its laid-back way, gently razz the kung fu genre. It doesn't strain to be different and that's a wise choice. When it comes to plot, your average martial arts movie -- The Forbidden Kingdom being the most recent example -- is just as tame.
The animators carry out their duties with aplomb, dipping into a vibrant palette and bringing swooping perspective and slo-mo to the fights. There's little opportunity for any of the actors to emerge from the shadow of Black's outsized personality, although Hoffman manages to make Shifu a sharp dramatic and comic foil.
Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger don't overindulge in puns, for which we should be grateful. They also go easy on the naughty innuendo and toilet humor, which may account for the relative lack of guffaws. The message about positive self-image translates as "use your self-confidence to bluff your opponent" and might not be the best advice if applied to real-life altercations.
Such considerations are off the menu however. Fast, light, and easy-to-swallow, Kung Fu Panda is an ideal repast for families to enjoy during early summer at the multiplex.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated "PG" for sequences of martial arts action.)