Po, the titular panda of the latest Dreamworks animation epic, works in the soup kitchen of his father. His father is a duck. “Sometimes,” Po says, “I can’t believe I’m actually your son.” The gruesome Chinese-cuisine implications of this droll plot point aren’t likely to occur to the movie’s moppet demographic, nor will its familiar message (follow your dream!) cause them to break much of a mental sweat. But why should it? “Kung Fu Panda” is purely an exercise in computer artistry. You can put your mind on idle and just flop back and stare at it and have a very good time.
The story is suitably minimal. It’s set in an alternative China peopled by talking pigs, geese, rabbits and other forms of normally non-verbal wildlife. Po (voiced by Jack Black) is not a born soup bear; he aspires to kung fu mastery. When he learns that a kung fu tournament is to be held at the nearby Jade Palace, he sets out to somehow take part. The Jade Palace is the place where kung fu was invented — by a wise turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) — and the tournament will determine the next Dragon Master of the discipline. In order for Po to show his stuff, though, he must win over the skeptical Palace trainer, a crotchety red panda named Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and his initially dismissive top students, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). There’s also a furious sixth character, a leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who was once Shifu’s protégé, but is now locked down in a custom-built prison for having done something vaguely awful. Will Tai Lung escape? Will he wreak havoc? Will Po nevertheless prevail? In a word, yes.
The movie’s great pleasures are in its hyper-real animation, its gorgeous colors and its non-stop kinetic exuberance. The famous voices really earn their paychecks with meticulously detailed performances. (Black and Hoffman are especially inspired.) The action is sometimes stunningly complex (a long chopstick-and-tea-bun training fight between Po and Shifu sets a new standard for witty computer-generated conflict). And some of the imagery — like the expiring Oogway being borne off in a cloud of shimmering peach blossoms — makes you catch your breath in wonder.
“Kung Fu Panda” doesn’t have the hip, breezy esprit of such Pixar masterworks as “The Incredibles” or “Ratatouille.” But it creates an enchanting other-world of its own. It’s sort of like the Caribbean sun: All you really want to do is bask in it.
(“Kung Fu Panda” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
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