Kung-fu fighting cartoon animals actually makes a lot of sense if you stop and think about it. After all, lots of kung fu movies are basically live-action cartoons anyway (not to mention the actual animé cartoons). Plus, a lot of kung fu is inspired by animals, from the “Five Animals” tradition that includes Tiger, Crane, Snake, Leopard and Dragon, to styles named after other species including Monkey, Praying Mantis, Eagle, Crab, Toad and Panda.
Wait. Okay, maybe not Panda. Let’s face it: When you think “survival skills,” you just don’t think “panda.” A large carnivore eschewing meat and subsisting instead on a nutrition-poor grassy diet affording little energy for anything but copious eating and sleeping isn’t exactly a role model for disciplined physical and mental achievement.
Exhibit A: Po (Jack Black), a giant panda in a rural village in ancient China, who works in the family noodle business but has dreams of kung-fu awesomeness — in spite of his obvious lack of promise.
“We all have our place in the world,” Po’s father tells him, clearly unable to envision his son in any other role but carrying on the family business.
Despite the titular incongruity, then, or perhaps because of it, Kung Fu Panda turns out to be both a surprisingly good kung fu movie and a solid family flick in what is shaping up to be a good year for family films — at least for older kids. The action, though no more realistic than the most cartoony chop-socky movies, is really intense. In fact, it’s too intense for younger tykes. For kids able to handle it, though, Kung Fu Panda may just be DreamWorks Animation’s most entertaining and endearing CGI cartoon to date.
Po lives literally in the shadow of a great kung fu school, the Jade Palace, home of China’s greatest heroes, the Furious Five. The Five defend the Valley of Peace under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a gruff, diminutive red panda, and his mentor, the great Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), an ancient, Yoda-like turtle who invented kung fu.
The biggest kung-fu fanboy in the Valley of Peace, Po knows all there is to know about the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Mantis (Seth Rogen), each embodying the style associated with his or her species.
“You’re so much bigger than your action figures!” Po exclaims rapturously upon meeting his heroes. “Well, except for you, Mantis … you’re pretty much the same.”
Careful readers may notice that the Furious Five include three of the traditional “Five Animals.” What about the other two, Leopard and Dragon? They haven’t been forgotten. The first is Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the treacherous snow leopard — a past student, and the villain of the piece. The other, the Dragon Warrior, has not yet appeared.
Somehow, to Po’s boundless joy and chagrin, he inexplicably finds himself swept into life at the Jade Palace, where he may finally achieve his heart’s desire … and face his worst fears. To Master Shifu and the Furious Five, though, Po’s arrival is like a bad dream.
“You don’t belong here,” he’s repeatedly told in a sequence that had me wishing the Five had been better established as heroes, so they would come off less petty here. Meanwhile, Shifu grimly sets out to drive Po away by training him past all endurance.
But what Po lacks in aptitude, he makes up for in enthusiasm and determination. Shifu’s efforts to drum him out fail. Po’s so thrilled to be there, so awed by the kung-fu awesomeness of it all, that he chortles with delight even as Shifu whirls him about and slams him to the ground. He’s like the title character in Rudy: No matter how much you hurt him, he just won’t give up.
Slowly, Po’s persistence and good humor begin to win over the skeptical Five. Eventually, though, comes a poignant moment as Po faces the fact that he will never be something he isn’t — and never not be what he desperately wants not to be: his roly-poly self.
Then, though, we see that there may be a way for a roly-poly panda to be more than he ever thought possible — if he starts by being himself.
The themes are familiar. Be yourself, believe in yourself, you can achieve anything. On the other hand, the story also emphasizes the necessity of persistence and discipline, and the inevitability of adversity and failure, on the road to success.
There are other messages along the way. Shifu tells Po that “The mark of a true hero is humility,” and Shifu and Oogway have a remarkably nuanced philosophical exchange about the extent to which we can and can’t control events around us.
There’s also a little kung-fu mysticism, particularly in the strange scene in which Oogway fades out of the picture like Yoda in Return of the Jedi. Granted that his departure is a dramatic necessity (since if he sticks around he can easily defeat Tai Lung himself), it could have been less clumsily handled.
Kung Fu Panda is not just a comedy, but a kung-fu comedy. And the kung fu is really good. (DreamWorks animator Rodolphe Guenoden, a long-time martial-arts enthusiast, was designated kung fu choreographer for the production.) The flip side is that, while it’s all played for laughs, the viewer really feels the blows. I winced more than once as characters took shots so stunning that the screen almost subliminally went dark or flashed white to convey being knocked silly.
On the other hand, the authenticity is also the film’s secret weapon. In a brilliant training sequence that’s the movie’s best and funniest moment, Po and Shifu duel with chopsticks like martial artists with bo staffs; it’s like a Jackie Chan sequence, and the persuasiveness is precisely what makes it so funny.
The movie bumps along too quickly to get much mileage out of its big-name cast; whether Lucy Liu or Jackie Chan are well-cast isn’t terribly relevant since they get so few lines. Black and Hoffman make the biggest impressions, with Black bringing the charm and sweetness, Hoffman the crusty rigor.
The story is sweeter and shows more heart than you might think. When we first meet Tai Lung, he seems the ultimate fighting machine, nothing more. Who would guess that his past connection with the Jade Palace might still strike a chord, albeit briefly, in his stony heart — or that of his flinty former teacher?
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Much intense animated violence and menace; mild crude humor; mild kung-fu mysticism. Could be too much for younger or sensitive kids.