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Kung Fu Panda

Pandariffic Fun for the Whole Family

First, there was kung fu, then there was wire-fu (e.g. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Matrix trilogy), and now there's “panda fu”. While DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda doesn’t quite reach the mountaintop, it comes surprisingly close, thanks to a joke-and-gag filled script, inspired direction by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, and impressively detailed computer animation.

Kung Fu Panda is set in a land far, far away in an ancient China peopled by anthropomorphic animals. Po (voiced by Jack Black) is the ultimate fanboy. He’s also a very large, very out-of-shape panda with an eating disorder. Po works in his father Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) too-small-for-him noodle shop by day and dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior fighting alongside the Furious Five: Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Master Monkey (Jackie Chan), Master Viper (Lucy Liu), Master Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Master Crane (David Cross), and defeating villains and the hordes of henchmen that follow them. When he’s awake, Pop mimics kung fu moves under the watchful eyes of his beloved Furious Five action figures.

Dreams are one thing, but the Dragon Warrior is real or will be when the village’s revered leader (and turtle, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), selects the Dragon Warrior. Everyone, including Po, expect one of the Furious Five to be chosen, but an accident (or fate) places Po in Oogway’s path just as he’s about to select the Dragon Warrior. Once made, the choice can’t be unmade. The master of the Furious Five, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) puts Po through some heavy training. Po’s training gains a sense of urgency when Shifu’s former pupil, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard imprisoned in an impregnable fortress commanded by Vachir (Michael Clarke Duncan) escapes, eager to exact revenge on Shifu and the Furious Five.

Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, working from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, crib Po’s character arc from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Po is the unlikeliest of heroes, resisting the call to become a hero, facing physical and psychological obstacles, including his own self-doubts, but ultimately standing on his own, sans master or allies, to defeat the villain, who, in turn, represents the hero’s dark or shadow self.

All that, however, only partially explains why Kung Fu Panda succeeds as well as it does. The film takes the premise of a kung fu-fighting panda or rather a panda who wants to become a kung fu panda and milks it for seemingly every possible joke or gag, most of them focusing on Po’s bumbling, blustering manner, his frequent pratfalls, and ultimately, the unorthodox training program (with the obligatory Rocky-like montage in hand). When Po isn’t the object of humorous jibes or gags, Kung Fu Panda effortlessly shifts into martial arts/action mode.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars