Growing up, I remember watching cheesy 70's Kung Fu films on cable. There always seemed to be an endless supply of them available for any Saturday afternoon (they rotated every other week with Godzilla movies) and, if you looked close enough, you could usually see the wires as the ancient Kung Fu fighters flew through the air.
This is pretty much the source that Dreamworks has tapped to create its latest animated adventure - Kung Fu Panda. But that's not a bad thing. The film knows where its roots are and has a blast with it - stylized Kung Fu moves, the wise Kung Fu masters, the epic battle between good and evil. That's not to say the film lacks from any substance. A decent storyline is thrown in, even if it feels a bit rushed, along with enough appeal to not only catch the attention of little Billy and Susie but their parents, as well.
The story starts with Po the Panda (Jack Black), a huge Kung Fu fan who's heart is the only thing bigger than his stomach. Born into the family business of slinging noodles, he dreams of something more - becoming a Kung Fu master. Meanwhile, up in the mountain monestary, the ancient and wise Oogway the tortoise (Randall Duk Kim) has had a vision that the evil martial arts expert Tai Lung the Snow Leopard (Ian McShane) is about to break out of his personal supermax prison and wreak havoc on the world. Oogway warns his former pupil turned master Shifu the Red Panda (Dustin Hoffman) that they must find the Dragon Warrior, the only being powerful enough to stop Tai Lung. Shifu looks to one of his five student masters (Tigress - Angelina Jolie, Viper - Lucy Liu, Crane - David Cross, Monkey - Jackie Chan and Mantis - Seth Rogen), also known as the "Furious Five", to be named Dragon Warrior. But when Po is identified to be the chosen one, everyone is sure a mistake has been made and it becomes a race against time before the villain shows up to steal a powerful artifact from the monestary and trash everyone in the process.
The animation and visuals in this film are top-notch. The bulk of the film uses traditional computer animation to recreate the Chinese landscape, using bright, vibrant colors to give it an ancient painterly feel (they've come a loooong way since Antz). The opening sequence, on the other hand, is a hand-drawn dream sequence that uses deeper, richer colors to give it the feeling of traditional shadow puppetry. The visual effect is very nice.
A lot of the same can be said about the fight sequences in the film. The way all the characters move is completely exaggerated (this is an animated film), but is also very nice to look at. As Po and his companions become more confident in their Kung Fu skills, the animated fights become crisp, clean and a treat for the eyes, though Po tends to use his gut when fighting - literally. The best sequence of the film is probably Tai Lung's escape from his prison - he claws and kicks his way out of booby trap after booby trap meant to slow him down. Very cool.
Final thoughts? While it's not the best animated flick I've ever seen, it's pretty solid and fun. The stylized animation is very nice and the voice acting is great. The story does feel rushed in places, though, especially toward the end. For those with kids, take 'em - they'll love it. But if you're just the casual movie goer who was a bit curious about how a fat panda could become an ancient Chinese warrior, it may be worth waiting for the rental. For now, I'm wondering what the sequel will be called. Ninjitsu Aardvark? Karate Tapeworm? Tae Kwon Doe Fruit Bat? Hmmm...