Po (voiced by Jack Black) is the fat son of a noodle chef who, though being groomed to take over the family business, has dreams of one day becoming a great kung fu master and hero of the people, but while quite game and enthusiastic, he's lazy, clumsy, and has no martial skills whatsoever. This unlikely wannabe gets his shot at glory when the prophesied escape of the villainous and incredibly skilled Tai Lung (DEADWOOD's Ian McShane) looms imminent and a martial arts master must be named as the sacred Dragon Warrior in order to handle the threat. Po, quite by accident, finds himself awarded the vaunted title, much to the horror and dismay of the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his balls-out badassed students, the Furious Five, each representing an embodiment of a classical animal-based kung fu style (specifically tiger, mantis, crane, snake, and monkey). All are dumbfounded that a fat load like Po could be the Dragon Warrior and all are at first determined to make sure that he gives up and leaves the temple, but they didn't expect Po's genuine love of what they do to fuel him to give it his best shot. While he's pretty much a washout, Po's girth and enjoyment of his training work to his advantage and Master Shifu figures out just how to motivate his unwanted new student to greatness, all while his adopted daughter, Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), seethes at the role that should have gone to her being usurped by one she feels is completely unworthy. As Tai Lung approaches and Po leaves the temple to accompany his father as the local villagers evacuate before the coming martial apocalypse, the Furious Five advance to stop him, but are unceremoniously handed their asses in a butt-kicking of painfully disheartening proportions. When Master Shifu, no slouch himself, proves unable to defeat Tai Lung — who, by the way, is also his adoptive child, one in whom he is deeply disappointed because he turned to evil — , Po returns to save the day after reaching a philosophical epiphany unwittingly provided by his noodle chef dad, providing the ages-old lesson of "believe in yourself, and you can achieve miracles" for a new generation of moviegoing little ones.
I would have had a great time with KUNG FU PANDA even had I not been a devotee to the martial arts, so I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fun "hero's journey" or training film, as well as advising lovers of quality animation to see this on the big screen, if it pops up again, in order to get the full effect of its visual grandeur. As for the individual points of note:
- The one element of the film that I feared would make or break the film turned out to be quite praiseworthy, namely Jack Black's voice acting. I loved Black in the excellent SCHOOL OF ROCK, but find him mostly annoying in just about everything else he's been in because his approach to comedy often strikes me like he's both trying too hard and is attempting to convince everyone watching that he's as funny as he thinks he is. This time, though, he gives a genuine performance that is full of heart and charm, and the viewer definitely comes to love and root for his character.
- Dustin Hoffman was the last person I would have expected to be able to pull of playing that mainstay of kung fu movies, the seasoned master, but he's absolutely perfect as Shifu, a character whose triumphant martial abilities are reflected in Tai Lung's misuse of his teachings, and Master Tigress' feelings of resentment at being passed over as the Dragon Warrior. Shifu conveys a weary exasperation and sadness seldom seen in a character of this type, and I find him much more interesting than many of the master types found in the literally hundreds of martial arts films that I've seen. He's no Simon Yuen, or even Keye Luke for that matter, but he's nonetheless terrific.
- And speaking of terrific master types, Randall Duk Kim's ancient Master Oogway is the finest of this breed since Yoda first showed up in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), before his mystery and wonder were flushed down the toilet in the cinematic Montezuma's Revenge that was STAR WARS: EPISODES I-III. This centered, contemplative figure is a tortoise whose every slow movement conveys both his advanced age and now effortless mastery of his art, as well as his wisdom and connection with the natural world around him. He's even Shifu's master, and Shifu defers to his decree when Oogway pronounces Po to be the Dragon Warrior; Shifu has his doubts about that, but in the end Oogway is proven right beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Shifu and Master Oogway.
Truly beautiful in every way, I wish Oogway had more screen time.
- The Furious Five are a load of fun and a formidable group of warriors if ever I saw some. Viper (a perfectly cast Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie) are a joy to watch, and I demand to see more of them in the inevitable sequel. That goes most strongly for Jackie Chan's Monkey, a brilliant bit of casting that unfortunately went nowhere because the character has perhaps five lines of dialog.
- Don't skip the end credits because they are a triumph or design and amusing character art vignettes, as well as having a sweet, silent coda at the very end.