In the grand tradition of the DRUNKEN MASTER series, the one in which the hero could only wage righteous martial arts warfare when in an advanced state of inebriation, comes KUNG FU PANDA, about a bear that can only wage righteous martial arts warfare when, well, that’s the problem.
Po is the unlikely eponymous panda and he has dreams as big as his considerable girth all centering on a longing to be a kung fu fighter of legendary achievement. Unfortunately, aside from a complete lack of training, and a physique that doesn’t bode well, he’s stuck dishing up noodles at his father’s outdoor restaurant and gently trying to keep from letting the old guy, or duck to be precise, down with his complete disinterest in taking over the family business. Po’s big chance comes when Master Oogway, an aging turtle with a metaphysical bent, has a vision that the fiendish snow leopard Tai Lung is about to break out of prison and wreak havoc on the peaceful valley, named, conveniently, Peaceful Valley. Tai Lung is ticked off because after years of training at the Jade Palace, he was denied the legendary Dragon Scroll, which when read renders the reader into the Dragon Warrior. In order to fight the evil feline, Master Oogway decides to choose the Dragon Warrior from among the prize pupils of Master Shifu, the so-called Furious Five: Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper, and Crane. But, in a turn of events as stunning as it is unsettling for everyone involved, he picks Po to be the Dragon Warrior. Was it an accident (Master Oogway claims there are no such things), or is Master Oogway either wise beyond the reckoning of mere mortals or getting a little funny in the head with his advanced years? With little time to worry about the fine details, Po begins his training and makes his mark by lowering the bar lower than even Master Shifu has ever imagined. Po has an ingenious way of getting every Kung Fu move exactly wrong, yet imbuing it with his own enthusiastic energy. Anything but nimble, he’s game in the way that any devoted fan would be given the chance to live the dream. This is a panda who may not have the moves, but he does, oddly, have the right stuff, even if there is way too much of it girth-wise.
The animators have done a spectacular job of giving vivid life to the faces of most of these characters. Po’s raised befuddled frown, or Master Shifu’s slow burn are not just rendered accurately, they are also rendered with perfect comic timing. That’s true of the film as a whole, which hinges on a wafer-thing premise that doesn’t have any big surprises in it, but does nail every comic possibility, from Po’s slavish devotion to the plump dumplings for which he would do anything to savor, to the running gag about his inability to climb the mountainous staircase to the Jade Palace. Yes, there are those life lessons to be learned, courtesy of parables about peach trees and such. Yes, there is a moral at the end, but mitigated by humor that is played broadly, but never badly. Credit the witty writing that knows when to be cheesy, usually when Tai Lung is snarling his disdain for the world, and when to be sharp, usually when Po is talking, or, rather, babbling using Jack Black’s earnest, breathless voice. The only letdown is Tigress, who can spin wildly in gravity-defying Kung Fu moves, but has a face that never really comes to life.
The choreography of the martial arts sequences, though, is every bit as detailed and as imaginative as the best to be see in live-actions flicks. Fighters scamper over rooftops and across rickety bridges that span impossibly deep chasms. When the battles begin, the moves are as authentic as possible, considering that some of the combatants have limbs that are articulated very differently from humans (Mantis), or are altogether limbless (Viper). Never mind. The not-so inside joke is that the different Kung Fu styles are named after the creatures who make up the Furious Five.
KUNG FU PANDA is pays homage to the Hong Kong Kung Fu epic by being true to the Fu while making sport of clichés. It’s light-hearted, just a little bit wicked, and all-around fun.