I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly have very high expectations for Kung-Fu Panda. It just seemed like such an outlandish proposition to have Jack Black provide the voice to animated panda, let alone one that would go around beating the tar out of bad guys using advanced martial arts. I figured that it would just be yet another animated movie that dangled from a thin plot by an even thinner thread.
Thankfully, I was very pleasantly surprised by Kung Fu Panda. Created by the good people at Dreamworks Animation, Kung Fu Panda follows the tale of a blundering idiot of a panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black. He was raised to sell noodles alongside his goose father Mr. Ping, but this is not the life that he desired for himself. He has an ambition to become a great kung-fu master and through some strange stroke of luck, he comes to be earmarked as the Dragon Warrior, a distinction that has not been bestowed for a thousand years.
The comedy in Kung Fu Panda, for the most part, is of the slapstick variety. We laugh as Po makes an idiot of himself, crashing in every which direction and getting abused by the various training exercises. You shouldn’t expect much in terms of sophisticated humor in this film, because you just won’t get it. Instead, you will see Po struggle to lug his noodle cart up a long flight of stone stairs, only to see that he has barely made it five steps. You will watch as he gets his ass handed to him by a tiny insect. But that’s okay, because that’s the kind of movie that Kung Fu Panda is.
Serving as Po’s master is Master Shifu, a red panda voiced by Dustin Hoffman. I found the naming of this character to be a little strange, because it is ultimately redundant. Shifu literally translates as “master” or “teacher” in Chinese. I also found that Master Shifu was some strange blend of Master Splinter from the ninja turtles and the furry protagonist from Gremlins.
In fact, it seems that Kung Fu Panda has borrowed many elements from other popular films and television shows. The awkwardness and clumsiness of Po in his attempts to learn kung-fu are not unlike those that we witnessed in Beverly Hills Ninja with the late Chris Farley. The way that things seem to work out for him without making a distinct effort is very Winnie the Pooh-like in nature. Even the evil Tai Lung, who serves as the primary villian in the film, made me think of Scar from The Lion King.
Despite being a little generic and unoriginal in its approach, Kung Fu Panda has enough substance to warrant the price of admission. The tale is heartwarming and Jack Black actually does a reasonable job portraying an ill-fit kung-fu master of a fat panda. The action scenes are surprisingly intense and the physical comedy will easily keep you amused for the full 92 minutes. The all-star cast — which includes Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Michael Clarke Duncan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, and Wayne Knight, among others — is pretty impressive too.
Whether a certain panda slayer would approve, however, remains to be seen.