By now, it's a given that animated films need to appeal to adults as much as they do to kids to be successful, both critically and at the box office. Some do it better than others, though. It's likely that most kids won't appreciate the numerous homages to the martial arts genre in Kung Fu Panda, and adults won't be as entertained by seeing a giant panda repeatedly fall on his butt, but at least both groups will leave the theater somewhat satisfied.
Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po, an overweight, soft, clumsy, noodle-making Panda who dreams of martial arts glory. He is amazingly chosen as the mighty Dragon Warrior who will defend the valley against the evil leopard, Tai Lung, who has escaped prison. Tai Lung is a master of Kung Fu and cannot be stopped, even by the famed Furious Five: Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey. Po seems to have no Kung Fu skills. He is clumsy, out of shape, undisciplined and preoccupied with food. Master Shifu, his instructor, tries to get him to quit by putting him through very rigorous training, but Po is surprisingly tenacious. The Furious Five are angry with Po's selection as the Dragon Warrior. Each of them think they deserve the title more than the hapless Po. Both Po and Master Shifu must eventually put their doubts behind them in order for Po to achieve true greatness.
The new animated comedy and kiddie flick Kung Fu Panda probably seems better than it is on the simple basis of relativity. In other words, thereÃ¢â¬â¢s enough mere adequacy, middling mediocrity and outright awfulness out there right now that itÃ¢â¬â¢s not hard to look good but donÃ¢â¬â¢t sell the Panda short. In any season, this would be a terrific-looking picture. As computer animation goes, this just might be the most striking-looking film yet. Some of the imagery is little short of sublime, sometimes in big, flashy ways, and other times in surprisingly subtle ways. There are moments of spectacle right alongside moments of great delicacy. But its merits donÃ¢â¬â¢t end there.
The near genius of the film big-name stars doing voices to one side is that it almost completely eschews the snarky postmodern, pop-culture-referencing sensibility that seemed pretty fresh and cheeky when Shrek (2001) first appeared on the scene, but now looks more tired and desperate than a dateless working girl at last call in a dive bar. Seven years of Shrek knockoffs (including last yearÃ¢â¬â¢s Shrek the Third) have taken a toll.
The film's short 88-minute running time doesn't leave a lot of room for leisurely storytelling. The action moves at a brisk pace, often to the detriment of character development among the supporting cast. The advantage of this approach is that kids won't have any trouble following the plot all the way to the final moments. The problem, however, is that some of the emotional progressions feel unearned. Shifu initially resists training Po, for reasons which are well supported. When he eventually comes around, as we know he must do, the about-face seems somewhat abrupt. It's as if the film's well-worn formula is all the justification the audience should need.
The strength of this film is its visual presentation. The characters are well designed and they move with the necessary precision and grace. There's evidence of Black's physicality in Po, but it's not a distraction. He sinks himself into the character, if not invisibly then at least convincingly. The scenic backgrounds are also well-rendered, with a distinct style that is ancient yet also modern, Asian with a hint of Western influence. Lovely images of nature such as falling cherry blossoms are contrasted with the vast, cold depths of Tai Lung's seemingly inescapable prison.
I must confess, I didnÃ¢â¬â¢t know it was Dustin Hoffman lending his voice to Shifu until the credits played (which I recommend sitting through, if only to hear BlackÃ¢â¬â¢s awesome rendition of Ã¢â¬ÅKung Fu Fighting"). David Cross gets my pick for best of the