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FILM REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda

Investing a familiar formula with uncommon fun

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Kung Fu Panda
Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Rated PG

It has been fascinating to observe the rise of computer-generated animation — in particular, watching as the storyteller invests so much imagination in technical innovation that they share the same plot with everyone else. You know the one: Some misfit strikes out on his own, only to discover that he needs to be true to himself. A Bug's Life, Happy Feet, Robots, Meet the Robinsons, Bee Movie — think of it as the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer paradigm. Oh the academic thesis that could be constructed around the irony of an entire market-tested genre paying lip-service to the importance of uniqueness.

Offering a radically new story is a risky, admirable thing in this context, but we shouldn't fail to recognize when simple execution results in something thoroughly entertaining. Kung Fu Panda walks some pretty familiar ground in its story of Po (Jack Black), a portly panda who works in his dad's (James Hong) noodle shop in China. Po dreams (literally, and hilariously) about being a great martial arts hero like his idols the Furious Five, but doesn't think there's any way his lumbering body can become a feared weapon of awesomeness. That's before he stumbles into a tournament at the legendary Jade Palace to determine the great Dragon Warrior and finds the old master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) giving Po that high honor.

The predictable complications ensue, as the Furious Five's skeptical master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tries to push Po to give up his training and surrender the honor to one of the more experienced students. A vicious villain — Shifu's one-time protégé Tai Lung (Ian McShane) — looms on the horizon, and there's no way this fuzzy, cuddly lump of a would-be Dragon Warrior could ever rise to the challenge. Right?

Knock the shocked expression off your face when we suggest that Po might turn out to be a hero of sorts after all. It's the journey toward that perhaps-inevitable resolution that provides so much simple satisfaction. Co-directors Mark Osborne (a SpongeBob SquarePants veteran) and John Stevenson (a DreamWorks Animation veteran) choreograph some terrific slapstick sequences, including Po's foiled initial attempt to get into the tournament arena. One brilliant bit finds Po and Shifu dueling with chopsticks over a dumpling, the action escalating with dizzying absurdity. And even more wonderfully, they don't feel compelled to pack every shot with some rib-nudging pop culture reference. This is a movie in which everyone's trying, but no one's trying too hard.

That includes Jack Black, for whom "trying too hard" can be a default setting. Here he actually gives his voice characterization a charming eagerness, as Po finds himself the equivalent of a Little Leaguer taking batting practice at Yankee Stadium ("I've only seen pictures of this picture!" Po marvels at one artifact in the Jade Palace). Voice actors in animated films don't always feel like they're working together, but Black finds a perfect pitch for his interactions with Hoffman's grumbly Shifu. Even in such a familiar kind of animation role, Black creates a uniquely appealing character, and even the voice actors who have far less to do — including David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Angelina Jolie as members of the Furious Five — follow his lead.

There's nothing any of them can do, of course, about moving through a narrative that offers few surprises. As is the case in some live-action martial-arts adventures, the sheer number of fight sequences begins to grow wearying, even when they're staged with gusto. But at regular intervals, the creators of Kung Fu Panda make it clear that they're not just going to cruise along and let the premise do all the work, as they do in a smart shaggy-dog buildup to almost revealing why Po doesn't exactly bear a family resemblance to his dad. There are plenty of things in this movie that we already know without being told, but it doesn't really matter that it's not ground-breaking. It's gratifying enough to find people interested in making it fun.

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