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Kung Fu Panda A Rare Dreamworks Animated Winner

Kung Fu Panda
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris
Dreamworks/Paramount, 2008

For the uninitiated, I’m one of those rare people who didn’t think Shrek was fantastic and I especially didn’t like the sequels. I tremendously disliked Shark’s Tale and only found the penguins charming in Madagascar. Last fall, I actually thought Dreamworks took a step in the right direction with the maligned Bee Movie. It was the first time I had seen a Dreamworks animated picture that wasn’t overbearingly self-aware in its humor.

I was a little worried about Kung Fu Panda because it looked like a return to that Shrek attitude, with Jack Black voicing a lazy panda that doesn’t belong in an elite fighting team. It’s the Dreamworks/Shrek mentality to throw an unwanted character into a sacred setting and then, in the words of Homer Simpson, “take the starch out of those stuffed shirts.” Luckily, the character isn’t nearly disrespectful and is quite likable.

In Kung Fu Panda, a martial arts community is about to select the Dragon Warrior, the one who will bring peace to the land. Its spiritual leader is the turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), and he has a vision of a dangerous leopard fighter named Tai Lung (Ian McShane) coming to destroy the village, and only the Dragon Warrior can stop him. There are five elite fighters who look to become the chosen one: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan). Po (Black), the panda, is but a humble noodle soup maker who is late to the ceremony, and after trying many times to get into the arena, finds himself accidentally chosen.

But there are no accidents, say Oogway to the frustrated master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a curious-looking animal that looks raccoon/fox/mouse, and he urges him to look beyond the tubby, skill-less exterior and try to find a way to turn him into a warrior. Po is also being shunned by the other five, who believe he has no business being in their world, despite his rabid fandom. Meanwhile, the prophecy is coming true at a prison where Tai Lung is being held. He escapes, in the movie’s coolest sequence, and looks to find the Dragon Warrior and set his eyes on the mystical dragon scroll. Somehow, Po is going to have to be turned into a master before Tai Lung arrives, because the other fighters won’t be able to beat him.

Had Black been forced to play a wiseguy, a perverse outsider unheeding of traditions, I would have never been able to root for him. Black is perfect for cartoon voices. And meanwhile, Hoffman, in his first animated feature, is terrific. There are several fun animated sequences here: Tai Lung’s escape and Snifu’s challenge of Po over dumplings come to mind, and the humorous opening sequence sucked me right in. I actually found myself hard-pressed to leave the auditorium.

A pleasant surprise, and much-needed after an overall disappointing May.

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