As with all comics, Jack Black’s antics are a matter of taste. Even those of us who find him funny may occasionally grow weary of him, particularly given that no matter what the role, he always basically plays himself. That’s true in “Kung Fu Panda,” too, yet the fact that it’s an animated version of him, not the flesh-and-blood version, reduces the Tired of Jack Black Factor considerably.
In all, it’s a perfectly serviceable animated comedy, quite funny at times, and with no pop-cultural references to date it. In fact, if it weren’t for the presence of Black and his shtick, you’d never know, 10 years from now, what era the film was made in. That kind of quasi-timelessness goes a long way toward establishing something like this as a real product of consequence (like “Ratatouille”), as opposed to a throwaway confection (like “Madagascar”).
“Kung Fu Panda” is set in an unspecified time period in an unspecified Chinese village where anthropomorphic animals live ordinary peasant lives. One of these is Po (Black), a panda whose father (James Hong) runs a noodle restaurant and assumes Po will one day go into the family business. (Po’s father is a goose. This is not explained.) But Po has bigger dreams, as do all protagonists in animated films, particularly those protagonists who come from single-parent families. Po loves the martial arts and idolizes the Furious 5, a quintet of warriors who train at the palace on the mountain that overlooks the village.
Po is overweight and lazy, however, which is probably due to his being a panda. So you can imagine his astonishment when Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the ancient turtle who oversees all the fighting masters, declares that he, Po, is the Chosen One. The fates have decreed it. Po must be trained as the new Dragon Warrior who will fight against Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the murderous leopard who is about to break out of prison.
Po isn’t the only one surprised by this decision, of course. The Furious 5 — a tigress, a monkey, a snake, a crane, and a praying mantis — are all shocked that it wasn’t one of them. The tigress (Angelina Jolie), in particular, is offended and resentful. And their trainer, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a red panda*, is positively disgusted. But wise old Oogway is seldom wrong. And anyway, you don’t argue with him, even if he is. It’s a respect thing.
So Shifu and the five must train Po, and we are treated to a few too many jokes about Po being fat and hungry. Po awkwardly interacts with his new colleagues, in awe of their skills and well aware that he doesn’t belong with them. An uncouth panda, he must be taught in the ways of the palace. “We do not wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears,” Shifu tells him wearily.
The screenplay is by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, a duo that has written for TV’s “King of the Hill” and “MAD TV,” from a story by “Bulletproof Monk” writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. The martial arts on display are exceedingly well animated (as is the whole film, really), with a near-Pixarian attention to detail that should please viewers who know about this kind of stuff. The directors, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, both experienced in the biz but never having directed a feature-length cartoon before, pull off some dazzling fight sequences and a prison-break scene that is nothing short of spectacular.
The story is ultimately pretty formulaic, with Po’s unorthodox talents (mostly involving food) proving useful in battle and everyone learning the important lesson of Believing in Yourself. Apart from the tigress and the crane (David Cross), none of the Furious 5 really get any screen time, wasting the talents of Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Seth Rogen, who voice them.
But on the other hand, the conversation between Oogway and Shifu about destiny vs. free will is surprisingly thoughtful for a cartoon, suggesting that “Kung Fu Panda” is more than one of those throwaway confections I mentioned earlier. It’s slick, energetic, and entertaining enough to separate it from most of the in-it-for-the-cash animated products that the studios have been cranking out the last few years. Also, pandas who do kung fu are just plain funny.
*That’s what Wikipedia says, anyway. I watched the whole movie with no idea what he was supposed to be.
B (1 hr., 28 min.; )