Kung Fu Panda. Either you love that title for seeming to be the paradox of paradoxes or hate it with utter disbelief. You also know that it will follow the general outline of a classic underdog story because, well, pandas are not the most nimble animals and we don’t immediately associate them with kung fu. What is surprising is how vibrant and refreshing the film is in its delivery of the durable formula.
The first thing the movie gets right is casting Jack Black in the lead role of Po the Panda. From the opening scene as Po sees himself as a formidable warrior, we hear him narrating his exuberant martial arts movements using the words “pure awesomeness” as only Black can say them. His trademark voice instinctively tells us that this panda would make a truly funny, one-of-a-kind warrior and not because of his figure.
That opening sequence is all a dream, of course, as Po really works with his father and noodle restaurant owner, Mr. Ping (James Hong). When he is not laboriously waiting tables (he cannot even go between tables without bumping one aside), however, he idealistically looks to the Jade Palace and dreams of martial arts glory. Understandably, he conceals this from his dad fearing that he will not see through his pipe dreams.
One day, he heads over to the Jade Palace to witness the announcement of the new Dragon Warrior, which would presumably be one of the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). It is there that, after he literally rides on a rocket trajectory to get past the tall walls and plummets back down to the ground, he has been shockingly chosen by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the new Dragon Warrior to defeat the nefarious snow leopard, Tai Lung (Ian McShane). The training master of the Furious Five, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is flabbergasted at this seemingly accidental choice to which Oogway simply replies, “There are no accidents.”
Shifu and the Furious Five initially mockingly doubt that he is the chosen one to potentially beat Tai Lung, who has just escaped out of his prison fortress, but we know the master will inevitably see through Po’s perseverance and come around to train him (particularly after Oogway convinces him to believe while dispersing some deeper, family-friendly lessons). Where the movie really impresses is in its level of detail of the animation of the kung fu training. Those who are intimately familiar with martial arts and its movie genre will instantly recognize that screenwriters Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Ethan Reiff, and Cyrus Voris, and directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have really done their homework (including having each of the Furious Five be animals who represent a kung fu style). The animators pay such great attention to the intricate fighting techniques from the Shaw Brothers movies to the more recent Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies that I almost wondered whether famed choreographer Yuen Wo Ping was called in to draw the animation. It is no wonder Jackie Chan himself agreed to show his support by voicing a character.