Andy Bockelman: 'Kung Fu Panda' equals big, fat fun


— What do you get when you cross Bruce Lee with Winnie the Pooh? The awesome animated star of "Kung Fu Panda."

Po (voice of Jack Black) is a clumsy and spastic panda living in the Valley of Peace. Although his father (James Hong) wants him to continue the family noodle business, Po would rather be a master of kung fu like his idols, the Furious Five- Masters Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie).

When the residents of the Valley gather to view the ceremony to name one of these five to be the Dragon Warrior, Po is only too excited to watch. Through bizarre happenstance, he somehow manages to get himself dubbed "the Chosen One," much to the vexation of the disappointed masters and especially Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who will have to train the confused panda.

However, Shifu's wise old mentor Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) insists that this series of events cannot be an accident, because there are no accidents in life. This seems less and less likely to Shifu, who knows that as the Dragon Warrior, the hopeless Po will have to face the merciless snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a kung fu master gone bad.

Lovably hyper, Black is precisely personified by Po, as the panda takes one pounding after another and keeps coming back for more with a goofy grin on his face. Hoffman clearly is quite at home as the sour-faced Shifu, who actually is a panda himself albeit the more diminutive red panda.

The big-name actors who voice the Five are finely cast, but with the exception of Jolie as the aggressive Tigress, they do precious little more than grunt as they exhibit their individual kung fu styles. Some in-story commentary from real-life martial artist Chan would have made sense, at least, but it probably would have detracted from the big-bellied black and white hero.

Profoundly colorful in its animation and agreeably fast-paced in its action, the movie makes spectacular use of space as characters bolt from surface to surface in an enjoyably, almost endlessly kinetic motion. In addition to being fresh and funny, a handful of contemplative interludes keep the film grounded and offer relief from the turbulence, while managing to be inclusive of the sweet style we have come to know as the family film.

Similar to the majority of feature-length cartoons, the prevailing moral is "Believe in yourself," a formula which has remained tried-and-true since the earliest days of the film format. Unlike certain other cartoons with this message, the makers put their whole heart into their work, as does their gluttonous and overenthusiastic character as he bounces (yes, bounces) into his quest of becoming a serious student of kung fu.

Easily as bright as its Dreamworks brethren "Shrek" or "Over the Hedge," and outstripping the likes of "Madagascar" and "Bee Movie," "Kung Fu Panda" will have audiences echoing Po's love for the art well before the closing credits, which features a cover version of the classic '70s anthem "Kung Fu Fighting" by Jack Black and hip hop star Cee-Lo.

Now playing at the West Theater.


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