True to its title, the feature cartoon Kung Fu Panda is an improbable combination of cute-animal comedy and martial-arts farce with a saggy middle and an overall cuddly kapow. Past a superb opening, it takes a while for Kung Fu Panda to achieve a full head of steam, within and without the noodle shop. When it does, it improves on a showbiz dictum. This movie leaves 'em laughing - and gasping.
The plot puts an underdog parable into a bearskin. What energizes it is the wacky chemistry between Jack Black as a jolly black-and-white panda and Dustin Hoffman as his stern red panda mentor. Black's panda is named Po, presumably after Keye Luke's Master Po in the old Kung Fu TV show. But it takes this Po an entire movie to achieve his master status. Reared to be a noodle-maker, he leaps into the chop-socky big leagues when he accidentally wins a competition to find the Dragon Warrior destined to vanquish the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane).
The movie achieves its creative pinnacle right at the start. Po, a supreme fighter only in his dreams, fantasizes about taking on a saloon-full of plug-uglies and winning the admiration of his idols, the Furious Five: Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). In bold 2D animation resembling imagery ripped from street posters, this introductory sequence presents Po as an upside-down tornado (funnel at the bottom), whirling into action against opponents who at their eeriest are like animated shadow puppets. As Po offers a running commentary on his own greatness, the sequence mixes hilarity with braggadocio and braces audiences for comic wonderments to come.
But as soon as Po's father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), rouses his son to work, the movie becomes a more conventional if still tasty kettle of ramen - another digitally animated follow-your-dream fable, this time about Po eventually seizing the chance to move from kung fu fan to kung fu champion. When the real Furious Five disdain this upstart, who is more conscious than they are of his shortcomings, the movie nearly grinds to a halt.
It's piquant to see Crane moving his wings like lethal Oriental fans as he duels with the kick-boxing Tigress (in her gym-club leg wraps) atop an overturned jade turtle shell. (Po chooses to work out with an innocuous dummy that turns out to be a doorstop.) And the animators do themselves proud with the looks of the angry-eyed, sharp-clawed Mantis, who wouldn't be caught dead praying, the surprisingly seductive Viper (she's a different kind of snake charmer), and loose, jocular, yet don't tread-on-my-tale Monkey.
Still, the film doesn't hit its stride until Po goes one on one with Master Shifu (Hoffman), a red panda who is as fleet and sharp as Po is roly-poly and fuzzy. Shifu is a virtuoso combination of voice and image. Playing an authoritative teacher forces Hoffman to focus his overflowing energy; it must have been revitalizing for him to play this terse, tense character. The imaginative casting brings out Hoffman's two most appealing qualities - warm, edgy humor and benign aggression. Black's casting, by contrast, is too perfect. In that opening five minutes, he empties his bag of vocal tricks; from then on, the combination of Po's round, jovial image and Black's pushy tone becomes affable overkill.
Only when Po is with Shifu does everything work. In one of the film's finer touches, Shifu registers as more of a father figure to Po than his real dad, Mr. Ping. Shifu, after all, is a red panda. Mr. Ping is a goose.
When Po connects to Shifu, even the action grows more sensible and scintillating. Shifu recognizes that he must reach Po's fighting heart through his jiggling belly; dumplings become as crucial as clubs. The combat develops an exhilaratingly improvisational feeling and the filmmakers sustain it to the end.
Elsewhere, Shifu's own master, a wise old tortoise named Master Oogway, wins all the memorable lines and summons the most humor and affection. Randall Duk Kim conjures the perfect gnomic aura for such fortune-cookie statements as "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift - that is why it is the present."
Kung Fu Panda is a gift, too, albeit a modest one. In a good way, this chop-socky cartoon reminded me of the old joke about chop suey joints: An hour after you see this film, you're hungry to see another one. You may not want to see it twice, but it does whet your appetite for movies.
Watch a preview of Kung Fu Panda at
Kung Fu Panda
(Paramount/Dreamworks) With the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Rated PG for sequences of martial-arts action. Time 88 minutes.