Big and bouncy, Kung Fu Panda is another powerhouse Family Entertainment that means to pummel its young viewers into adulation. Borrowing liberally from most every kung fu movie ever made, it offers a dreamy martial arts fan as protagonist, then sends him on a set of trials and tests, until he learns that fandom can, in fact, lead to expertise and even brilliance in his chosen field.
This time the fan, named Po, is a panda, voiced by Jack Black and animated by the DreamWorks hard-workers. His ambition is at least initially complicated by his physical imperfection. Portly and inelegant, Po is mightily enthusiastic, doing his best at film’s start to ward off efforts by his adoptive goose-dad, Ping (James Hong) to hook him into carrying on his own life’s work at a village restaurant. His father so eager, Po can’t admit that the thrilling dream he had the night before concerned fighting and his own indominatible “bodacity.” Instead, he tells Ping he was dreaming of noodles, a little lie that inspires dad to rhapsodize about their future business. “Dad,” wonders Po, subdued, “Didn’t you ever want to do some else?” Ah yes, reminisces Ping. “Once I thought about running away and learning how to make tofu.”
Po’s face falls at his father’s proud declaration of limited horizons. In fact, he’s so frustrated that he makes a minor break, sneaking off to watch a martial arts demonstration atop the local mountain, where the grand master Oogway the Turtle (Randall Duk Kim) will be selecting the next Dragon Warrior. The assembled crowd is respectful, the time of choosing is near, and Po arrives late, which means he must go through a number of gyrations to get over the wall in order to see. Suffice it to say, he lands accidentally in the middle of the proceedings, where he finds himself chosen. The next Dragon Warrior is not just an amateur fighter, but a bumbling, trash-talking, sweet-bun-eating interloper.
This infuriates the Furious Five, who have trained for years to become even close to eligible for the honor so abruptly deposited on Po. Oogway insists the decision, however odd and unexpected, is fated, and so the Five, along with their authoritarian Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), accept the panda into their training routine, even as they grouse and mock him (“That flabby panda cannot possibly be the answer to our problems!” grumps Master Shifu). Their training takes on an increased sense of urgency when they learn that Oogway has had a dream, that the previous almost chosen one, a muscular monster of a snow leopard called Tai Lung (Ian McShane), imprisoned since he turned “bad” some years before, has escaped. Now he’s on his way over mountains and dales to exact his revenge on Shifu and the team and oh yes to steal the Dragon Scroll that will provide the Dragon Warrior the knowledge he needs in order to be extra super duper special.
The running joke is Po’s apparent unsuitability for the distinction, being rotund and out of shape, barely able to keep up with the basic training his new fellows undergo daily. Taunted by the team of barely sketched, frankly boring, celebrity-voiced creatures — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen) — Po is depressed, imagining that they’re right after all, that he’s a fluke and a loser.
Thus begins the moral education portion of our program, as Master Shifu determines to fulfill the demand placed on him by Oogway and, no small thing, be prepared for the terrible onslaught sure to be delivered by Tai Ling. The key to Po’s heart is food, and so the Master entices him with dumplings and peaches and buns, held out so as to encourage gymnastic displays and elastic contortions. These training sequences and the fights for which they prepare ensure that the majority of Kung Fu Panda, true to its title, is comprised of fight scenes, with Jack Black’s trademark splatter-chat in between. Because no one but Black and Hoffman has much chance to speak, the film becomes something of an anomaly, an animated blockbuster where the Much Touted Talent has precious little to do (though Jolie and her pregnancy certainly helped to pitch the project through Cannes, in the movie she’s hardly noticeable).
Po’s relation to the Furious Five shifts drastically as he inevitably achieves greatness. He arrives on the scene with awestruck — he has action figures of the Furious Five and an inclination to worship the ground they walk on. They expect as much: they’re depicted here as spoiled superstars, self-absorbed and quite used to believing their own hype. “You’re a disgrace to kung fu,” sniffs Tiger to the ungainly gatecrasher. The counterpoint lesson — fame is fleeting — is delivered by the wise Master Turtle, who spots the panda despondent and alone. “You’re too concerned with what was and what will be,” he says. “Today is a gift, that’s why they call it a present.” Trite and tedious, the exhortation is also apt, as Po is now living among a collection of luminaries who love themselves too much.