If you had to sum up the typical Jack Black character in six words, they would probably be "a lovable shlub with an obsession." Think of the wannabe wrestler in Nacho Libre, or the incorrigible headbanger in School of Rock. In Kung Fu Panda, the beefy actor gives us his cuddliest shlub yet. Thanks to the computer animators at DreamWorks, Black has morphed into a Chinese giant panda named Po. "Giant" is no euphemism: Po is a puffball even by panda standards, with a marshmallow tummy and chubby cheeks that any self-respecting grandmother would want to pinch. His obsession, as the title suggests, is martial arts.
Black has never been more endearing than in Kung Fu Panda. In playing the title character, Black tempers his usual frantic edge and taps into his oafish charm.
A cheerful spoof of chopsocky flicks, Kung Fu Panda depends as much on the comic appeal of Black as Bee Movie – DreamWorks’ last animated film – did on its star, Jerry Seinfeld. Happily, Black has never been more endearing; maybe being encased in animated fur makes all the difference. In playing Po, Black tempers his usual frantic edge and taps into his oafish charm. It’s impossible not to be won over by his panda diplomacy.
Po’s story unfolds in an imaginary ancient China, in the all-animal Valley of Peace. By night, he dreams of kicking butt with his kung fu heroes, the Furious Five. Alas, by day, he’s stuck waiting tables in the noodle house run by his father, a long-necked goose named Mr. Ping. (Po must get his ursine features from his mother.) Mr. Ping (James Hong) is a kindly man, but can’t understand why his son prefers martial over culinary arts.
One day, Po’s reveries unexpectedly come true. Thanks to a mishap involving some fireworks, he crash-lands in the middle of a ceremony meant to reveal the Dragon Warrior, the valley’s prophesied saviour. To everyone’s surprise, Oogway, the tortoise sage who invented kung fu, bypasses the Furious Five and anoints Po the Dragon Warrior.
That means Po must go into intensive training with the Five and their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), at the Jade Palace. For a bear who gets winded climbing a flight of steps, it’s a formidable task, especially given his lightning-fast sparring partners: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). It doesn’t help that Shifu, a diminutive red panda and kung fu expert himself, doubts that Po is the chosen one and thinks Oogway is going senile.
Po is a keener, but has a hard time with the "mystical, kung fu-y" aspects of his vocation; with his insatiable appetite and slovenly ways, he’s more likely to be stuffing his face with fruit from the Peach Tree of Wisdom or washing his armpits in the Pool of Sacred Tears. It’s only after Shifu catches this Shaolin glutton executing some impressive moves while searching for snacks that he realizes Po’s greatest weakness may be the key to unlocking his inner warrior.
It can’t come a moment too soon, as Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the ferocious snow leopard, is on the rampage. One of Shifu’s earlier protégés, Tai Lung was originally chosen as the Dragon Warrior but turned bad and had to be locked up in a fortress prison, bound in chains and guarded by crossbow-wielding rhinos. However, that’s not enough to hold him when he learns that Po has taken his place, and he breaks free to reclaim his title.
Kung Fu Panda is a pleasingly simple tale, and while it parodies the martial arts genre (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the 1970s Kung Fu TV series), it wears its allusions lightly. Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson are more interested in character dynamics than in being clever. The scenes between Po and the irritable little Shifu – voiced with gruff exasperation by Hoffman – are priceless. So, too, are the ones where Shifu consults his own elderly master, the unflappable Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), who serenely drops pearls of wisdom with a fractured Yoda-style syntax.
There are also wry comic bits from Cross (of Arrested Development fame) as the passive-aggressive Crane and Rogen as Mantis, a none-too-skilled hand at acupuncture. Liu has her moments voicing the deceptively sweet Viper, but the Furious Five were not created equal. Jolie is strident as Tigress, while Chan’s monkish Monkey seems to have taken a vow of silence. McShane, on the other hand, brings some of his delicious Deadwood nastiness to the sardonically evil Tai Lung. (His leopard could well be a Chinese cousin to that paragon of feline villains, Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King.)
DreamWorks remains behind Pixar when it comes to computer artistry, but there are still loads of lovely touches here: the steam coming off bowls of noodles, Po’s almost palpable fur, the human expressiveness in Po and Shifu’s eyes. Then there are the striking backdrops, which assiduously mimic classic Chinese art and architecture. These make up for the animators’ occasional lapses in inspiration, like Tigress, who looks like she belongs on a cereal box, and the generic rabbits and pigs that populate the Valley of Peace.
Not that there’s much time to notice such things — Kung Fu Panda is a swift-moving action-comedy that’s part Bruce Lee, part Chuck Jones. Directors Stevenson and Osborne spice the silly slo-mo combat sequences and Po’s slapstick bumbling with a healthy dose of vintage cartoon carnage. There’s a great battle involving the Furious Five and Tai Lung on an impossibly long rope bridge, slung over a canyon that would give Wile E. Coyote vertigo. That scene is topped, however, by a hilarious one in which Po and Shifu duel with chopsticks over a dish of dumplings.
We can thank writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for a screenplay that’s refreshingly kid-friendly after the last two DreamWorks features, Bee Movie and that postmodern fairy tale Shrek the Third. You don’t need a PhD in pop culture to fully appreciate Kung Fu Panda. Even the one obligatory nod to nostalgic Gen Xers – the cover of Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting (rewritten and performed by Black and Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo Green) – is held back until the closing credits.
I’ve never been a huge Jack Black fan, but now I’m looking forward to his next animated undertaking. May I suggest Samurai Tree Sloth?
Kung Fu Panda opens across Canada on June 6.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.