Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Kung Fu Panda is just plain fun. It is silly, funny, occasionally hilarious, a pleasure to look at, and has a lot of heart to boot. This is not a world-beating masterwork like WALL-E—it exists purely to entertain. But it certainly accomplishes that goal, and one thing it does have in common with Pixar’s brilliant film is this: it is one of only a few truly worthy family films to be released in the first half of 2008.

With a film like this, the plot isn’t the first thing one concerns him or herself with…this is mainly a film about beautiful animation and big laughs. But there are some solid surprises in this otherwise simple pleasure, even within the predictable framework of the film’s screenplay. The film centers on—you guessed it—a Panda bear who is mystified by the art of Kung Fu. Po (voiced by Jack Black) has dreams of becoming a legendary Kung Fu master…he just happens to be lazy, out-of-shape, and a slave to his endlessly effervescent father’s noodle shop. Through zany machinations of the screenplay, Po unwittingly finds himself at the center of an ancient prophecy that allows him to study martial arts under the legendary Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and fight alongside his idols, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross).

Obviously the film contains the typical bumbling training sequences when the clumsy Po seems as if he will never become a Kung Fu master, but in this film there is enough originality within each situation to freshen the clich├ęs. And of course, Po eventually reaches beyond his potential and becomes the most unlikely of martial artists, but once again this screenplay has more than a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve. The plot concerns a somewhat labyrinthine prophecy involving Po and his mortal enemy, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), but the way each conflict is resolved is simple in the most refreshing and honest of ways.

All of the voice actors are clearly having a ball with their characters and the material, and Jack Black is unquestionably the only possible choice for Po, a character that will become a favorite to legions of kids (my son’s Po action figure still graces the window sill of our TV room). Kung Fu Panda is simultaneously the embodiment of what summer entertainment should and shouldn’t be: it’s light, breezy, and loads of fun, but it doesn’t numb the mind, it doesn’t assault the senses, and even amid the zaniness there are solid messages to take home with you.

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