What does it say that two of the three films that have given me the giddiest pleasures this year have been animated? (The third was a Bollywood musical of vast proportions, “Jodhaa Akbar.” It dwells in a world of its own.)
“Horton Hears a Who” set the bar high for the kind of splashy, fast-paced comedy that engages the brain just enough and ends up tapping furiously at the heart. Now the even more manic but hilarious “Kung Fu Panda” kicks its way onto the scene with irresistible force.
Maybe Hollywood has finally realized that animation is the last genre that can appeal to every generation at once. Maybe it's greed: Animated movies score massive numbers when they click with viewers. Maybe Dreamworks decided to woo all the sedentary, overweight critics of America with a sedentary, overweight hero. (Hey, that works for me.)
For whatever reason, the film riffs happily on the kung fu movies that entered America's consciousness about eight years ago – and, truth to tell, it's more complicated than some.
Roly-poly Po (Jack Black) spends nights dreaming of serving justice and days serving noodles in his father's shop. (How a goose fathered a panda remains a mystery, but who asks for realism in kung fu films?) Po attends the ceremony at which Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) selects a Dragon Warrior, who will defend the kingdom and receive the secret of the Dragon Scroll. By accident, Po ends up in the sacred spot where the warrior is chosen – but, Oogway insists, there are no accidents.
Oogway assigns Master Shifu (a marmoset, I'm guessing) to train Po. And just in time, too: Shifu's former prize pupil, unstoppable panther Tai Lung (Ian McShane), is coming back to the kingdom to level the place; he's still enraged that Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) once refused to make him the Dragon Warrior.
Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson and writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger borrow material from many sources: the master-student relationship of “The Karate Kid,” the color scheme of “Hero,” the fight atop bamboo poles of “Iron Monkey,” action sequences (and a prison break) from “Kung Fu Hustle,” scads of flying imagery from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Over these they lay the traditional story of a young, single-minded hero who's missing a parent, longs to prove his “real” high-born identity (as a kung fu warrior, the equivalent of royalty in this setting) and is consistently devalued by people who claim he'll fail. He doesn't get a romance (a fresh touch), and he's as talkative and paunchy in the last scene as in the first, but he learns one of the usual messages from fairy tales: Hard work and fortitude help you achieve dreams.
Dreamworks' animators have made great strides over the last decade. Shifu's pinecone-like nose, with its speckles and pores, adds to the sense of detail-filled reality; broad, slashing strokes in action scenes suggest comic books, especially in the fantasy opening; the pastels and delicacy of some backdrops give us the impression of Chinese scroll paintings. (Two homeboys lent a hand with animation: technicians Wallace Colvard of Charlotte and Mitch Cockerham of Gastonia.)
The voice cast includes Angelina Jolie as a tigress, omnipresent Seth Rogen as an acupuncturist who's a praying mantis, David Cross as a nasal crane and Lucy Liu as a cheerful viper. No points, though for wasting Jackie Chan on the near-silent role of a monkey.