Grand Master Pudge
Jack Black's Doughy Dreamer Turns Jedi Knight in 'Kung Fu Panda'
Friday, June 6, 2008; Page C01
Ahhh, grasshopper. Consider the fat panda: Half-cooked dumpling, doughy child of destiny. Assassin of doughnuts. His tale of enlightenment is inspired by our people's most venerated text ("Stars Wars"). He is, at his best, the animated manifestation of the divinely elastic (Jackie Chan). His enemy is directly out of John Milton, whoever he was. Only the irredeemably cynical would suggest that a hero so dumpy had any marketing connection with our ongoing childhood obesity epidemic. No, the truth is that the fuzzy-wuzzy Po -- whose name evokes a Vietnamese soup, a red Teletubby and, at least partly, a sandwich -- is simply a heaving mass of lovable ineptitude.
And "Kung Fu Panda," directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, is as much fun as can be had at the movies right now, unless you have a lot of girlfriends and a shoe closet full of Jimmy Choos (gesundheit!). At a brisk and appropriate 88 minutes, this computer-generated DreamWorks adventure is infectious and inspiring, despite one's best efforts to resist its charms. It is, after all, a shoplifting expedition along the Joseph Campbell aisle of the cosmic grocery. Dustin Hoffman's red panda Shifu is more Yoda than Yoda. But remember what they used to say around the dojo, grasshopper: mind like water, mind like the moon.
Jack Black -- as obvious a choice for Po as Steve Carell is for Maxwell Smart -- is the vocal embodiment of the insecure bluffer, the lazy dreamer, whose character's elaborate dream life is far more exciting than his servitude to his father (James Hong), running a noodle shop amid the bustle of ersatz-feudal China. Po is, basically, a nerd. He knows everything about martial arts and is immersed in its minutiae the way the batboy might know batting averages. It's all in his expansive mind. Which is supported by a structure too expansive for a sit-up.
This makes Po the perfect protagonist for what is essentially a sports movie. As a bear, he is the ugly duckling and underdog who will be disparaged, dismissed and, eventually, triumphant. It takes some time, of course: After a riotously comic entrance into the Forbidden City -- where Shifu and his master, Oogway the tortoise (Randall Duk Kim), are announcing the fate of the Dragon Scroll -- Po is named the Dragon Master, whose selection is something like that of the Dalai Lama, i.e., inexplicable, the stuff of pure, ineffable spirituality. It has to be. Judging by his looks, the Chosen One (see "The Matrix") is less Giant Panda than Double Stuffed Oreo, one who will be expected to go mano a mano with the forces of pure, organic evil.
Why does anyone over the age of 5 care about this movie? Because the animation is spectacular and full of action but, more important, funny. Physical comedy, on which ancient Hollywood was suckled, has long been the purview of animation, and when Po and Shifu engage in a chopsticks duel over a rogue dumpling, it shows an appreciation for space and motion that is rooted in Buster Keaton. Yes, the fight scenes are electric and will keep kids percolating in their seats, but a creative cartoon energy sparks throughout "Kung Fu Panda." Since the movie's debut at Cannes, the critical consensus seems to be that it is fun, but no classic. I don't know about that. Sounds like too many critics had too much fun to trust their own judgment.
"Kung Fu Panda" is a sort of bittersweet salute to two-dimensional animation; DreamWorks has announced that after next year's "Madagascar 2," everything will be made in 3-D (albeit with versions released in 2-D). But something's bound to be lost, as the entire industry genuflects in the direction of "Toy Story 3D." There's nothing about a film like "Kung Fu Panda" that prevents total absorption in its characters or immersion in a convincing world. It's certainly more engaging than the ostensible charms of motion-capture technology (the creepiness of "The Polar Express" still has a way of lingering, like a garlic pickle). The fascination with the new among entertainment conglomerates is more a gesture toward technological hipness than rightness.
The same can be said about the vocal casting. Hoffman is terrific, giving a real performance as Shifu, who is alternately wise, worldly, irritated with Po's hapless acclimation to the world of high-end kung fu, and mournful over the traitorous defection to the dark side of his once-prize pupil Tai Lung (Ian McShane). A combo Lucifer-Darth Vader, Tai Lung is a cat with hyena markings, which makes him all the more menacing. To deflect Tai Lung's inevitable attempt to seize the Dragon Scroll, Shifu has assembled the creme de la creme of his student body, a.k.a. the Furious Five -- Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan!), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Viper (Lucy Liu). They forgot Grandmaster Flash. And they also forgot to assemble a cast with much personality. None of the supporting players brings anything to the party, although it should be said that there's not much for them to do.
It is the Po Show, though, the triumph of the adorable over the malevolent. As such, it is not a documentary. It is, however, a really good time.
Kung Fu Panda (88 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for furious animated martial arts action!