DreamWorks Pictures' crisply scripted, computer-animated action/comedy "Kung Fu Panda" propagates the fantasy that any slacker doofus, even a lazy panda, can become a heroic Dragon Warrior just by virtue of believing in himself. No real effort or sustained commitment necessary.
This rather conventional animated feature boasts too many over-the-top action sequences at the expense of characterizations, employs celebrity voices mostly for marquee value and demonstrates a verbal addiction to the annoying adjective "Awesome!"
Still, "Kung Fu Panda" is a fun and very funny kids movie with just enough zippy humor and sophistication to keep the adults engaged. Besides, how could anybody not like a movie that offers up a line like "We do not wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears!"?
Jack Black, the 21st century's John Belushi, brings his insecure Everyman persona to play Po, the amiable underdog hero of this tale. Or should that be underpanda?
An overweight, roly poly ball of black-and-white fur, Po lives with his dad, a noodle-shop owner and single-parent goose in China. Dad has big dreams for Po to take over the noodle business. Po has bigger goals, such as being a super kung fu warrior like his heroes, the legendary Furious Five: Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie). All have been trained by their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wiry, height-challenged wolf.
A fireworks accident winds up putting Po in the wrong place at the right time. Master Oogway the turtle (Randall Duk Kim) - given to uttering quaint sayings such as "Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present" - anoints the panda as the Dragon Warrior, a fighter who gets to read the sacred Dragon Scroll and be hailed a hero. This thoroughly miffs the Five, who if they weren't already Furious, would be for sure.
So would the villainous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). He has coveted the title of Dragon Warrior for more than 20 years while being chained in a dank prison, surrounded by 1,000 guards. A dangerous character who once trained as Shifu's greatest student, Tai Lung lives to avenge himself against his former master.
Of course, Tai Lung escapes, and he does it in a slam-bam, cartoon action sequence that owes no allegiance to the laws of physics. Like an Indiana Jones sequel.
Meanwhile, back in the Valley of Peace, Po realizes that as the Dragon Warrior, he must stop Tai Lung when he gets to town. That gives the frustrated Shifu a few days to train the panda to defeat the most powerful kung fu fighter in Asia.
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, "Kung Fu Panda" is stuffed with wondrous Asian visuals and gorgeous landscapes, even if they are compromised by redundant visual devices such as quick zooms, swish-pans and extreme close-ups.
DreamWorks follows the Walt Disney family film formula of at least one male suffering a testicle assault for comic effect. Here, Po comically screams "My tenders!" at the moment of his supreme discomfort.
The movie's unlikely coup de grace occurs during a hilarious extended training segment where Shifu and Po wage an energetic chop sticks war to snare the last remaining dumpling on the table. It's a classic, well-cut piece of animation worthy of a Jackie Chan movie from the 1980s.
For the record, "Kung Fu Panda" marks the second time this year ("The Forbidden Kingdom" was the first) that the legendary Hong Kong action star plays a martial arts expert who becomes subservient to a bumbling white slacker who manages to surpass him in fighting skills.
As previously noted, this is a fantasy.
"Kung Fu Panda"
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and Lucy Liu.
Directed by: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson.
>Other: A DreamWorks Pictures release. Rated PG. 88 minutes.