As we peer out over the landscape that is Summer Movie Season 2008, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see beyond the big shoulders of a big green guy, beyond the shadow cast by an icon in a fedora and beyond the wind-whipped cape of a cowled hero and his creepy arch nemesis. As cinema’s most profitable and marketing-friendly time rolls on, it is becoming more and more difficult to wade through the big dogs and find those mid-level films that are true gems of both entertainment value and artistic excellence. And for an animated film such as Kung Fu Panda, it has been even tougher to stand out, with Pixar’s next animated wonder — a cute little robot named Wall-E — looming right around the corner.
But for some reason it is Kung Fu Panda, the beautifully animated, cleverly written, fun-filled adventure of a panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) that has stopped me dead in my tracks on this summer movie march. I would have thought that the story of a fat panda who is all of the sudden thrust into the world of Kung Fu masters, only to find out that his destiny is to rise up and defend his homeland from an incomprehensible evil would be one easily dismissed. Especially considering that it comes from Dreamworks Animation, a company who has become accustomed to playing second fiddle to the more innovative, and often more creative Pixar. But as it has happened before — and will probably happen again, frequently — I was wrong. Kung Fu Panda is not to be ignored, it is to be applauded as one of the most entertaining films of the year, thus far.
The other potential downfall, besides the track record of Dreamworks Animation and the somewhat odd story, is comedic actor Jack Black in the lead. In all of the marketing leading up to the film, the focus has been on Black’s generally zany antics. And while I have long found Black to be entertaining in films such as High Fidelity, School of Rock and Be Kind Rewind, I am also reminded that he has had some roles that were a little too much: Nacho Libre and Orange Country, to name a few. As well, I have watched as so many comedic talents, including Jerry Seinfeld with Bee Movie and Martin Lawrence with Open Season, have made the jump to leading a big CG animated film only to fall flat on their faces, at least critically.
In this regard, Black turns out a performance that not only makes a hero of a fat panda, it makes a hero of an actor whose performances can often go either way. In the role of Po, Black is careful not to overdo it, allowing the comedy to come from a clever script and rich characters, while leaving all the unnecessary scatting and screaming for the next Tenacious D album. Combine that with some equally solid and not overcooked voice performances from Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Ian McShane, who is fantastic as the evil Tai Lung, and Kung Fu Panda has one of the best assembled voice casts since possibly Toy Story.
But as we know, a good voice cast is nothing without some beautiful animation. And while Dreamworks Animation has had success in the past with films such as Shrek and Over the Hedge, they have long been overshadowed in the visual department by the masters over at Pixar. This time around though, the animation is the star, combining some cuddly, fun animated characters with some vast, vivacious landscapes to create an amazing ancient world.
In fact, it is the stunning animation, combined with an ample story that keeps moving and doesn’t linger, that ties it all together in one fun, panda-sized adventure that is enjoyable enough for kids young and old. I didn’t expect to walk out of the theater a smiling, nearly giggling little kid, but I did. I also didn’t expect to be blown away by some amazing visuals, but I was. As far as surprises go in the world of film, Kung Fu Panda is the best kind — one that can be had over and over again if necessary. So if you are looking for one of those truly enjoyable, warm and fuzzy summer surprises, I would recommend a big helping of fun, delivered by a kung fu fighting panda named Po.