The Great Catch-up of 2008 continues, this time with another DreamWorks' latest entry in an attempt to usurp the stranglehold Pixar has over animated features: KUNG FU PANDA. Far more modest in its ambittions than WALL-E, the drive of KUNG FU PANDA is to simply entertain; what message there is (essentially, "the answer is within you" or something to that effect) isn't exactly earth-shattering, but that means KUNG FU PANDA is free to focus on making things fast and fun, which it manages to accomplish in spades.
Jack Black plays Po, a rather large and dumpy panda bear (which is how all panda are, but there's something about Black's performance that accentuates this rather "roundness") who dreams of being a kung fu warrior, a master of the various disciplines like his idols, the Furious Five, each technique mirrored in the animal who wields it. Alas, in reality Po is merely a waiter in his father's (a stork, which is never explained, thereby making it even funnier) noodle shop, destined or doomed to learn his father's secret ingredient for noodle soup and eventually manage the restaurant. Trouble's a-brewin' though - evil Tai-Lung (a white tiger) has escaped imprisonment, and the time has come to select the Dragon Warrior, the one who is destined to be the greatest martial artist in the Valley. Against all probability, PO is chosen, and it's up to Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman with surprising depth) and the Furious Five to train and prepare Po for what's to come.
Brief aside: what the hell kind of animal was Dustin Hoffman?
The movie's pretty standard - no one like him at first, and tries to get him to quit. But Po's so likable and upbeat (this is Black's most winning performance since SCHOOL OF ROCK) that of course they eventually come around, and Shifu bonds with Po, and he learns that the power of the Dragon Warrior has always resided within himself. You can pretty much see where every beat in KUNG FU PANDA is going, but Hoffman and Black are so good in their roles that they carry the movie along with them. The animation isn't WALL-E quality, but it looks damn fine just the same, especially the drop-dead gorgeous 2-D animation that bookends the film. Slow-motion is also used to great comedic effect; I just finished Roger Ebert's book about Martin Scorsese, and he talks about how ground-breaking Scorsese's use of slow-motion has been to film. I wouldn't say the effect in PANDA is on the same level, but I do feel comfortable saying that whenever slow motion's applied in the movie, it made me laugh.
A few minor complaints - the Furious Five are really under-used. David Cross's Crane and Seth Rogan's Mantis get the most mileage. But it's a sin that Jackie Chan as the Monkey is barely utilized in the film. How do you have the guy who basically set the modern standard for martial arts comedy in your film and barely give him any moments?
Despite that, the fight scenes are very well done, and if you're looking for some flashy fun that doesn't require a lot of thinking, or you just want to remember how charming Jack Black can be, KUNG FU PANDA fits the bill.