Kung Fu-fighting bear as bad–s as it sounds

The latest entry into the CGI animal arena is an increasingly rare winner

Jay Boller

Kung Fu Panda Directed by: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie Rated: PG Distributed by: Dreamworks cCelebrity-voiced CGI animal adventures have rightly been panned as hollow cash-grabs by producers and profitably lazy work for the celebrities. From the Nemo-exploiting “Shark Tale” to the mule-deer story of “Open Season” (featuring an aptly cast Ashton Kutcher), this decade’s mass-influx of said genre left Dreamworks’ “Kung Fu Panda” treading dangerous territory as it entered the scene with a title that smacks of uninspired toddler dollar-robbing potential. With all it had working against it, “Kung Fu Panda” manages to not only be a passable comedy, but a visually captivating and downright exceptional action movie.

The plot is about as elementary as movies intended for elementary school students can get. Po (Jack Black) is a clumsily charming noodle-serving Panda who secretly worships everything kung fu. His character is kinder and less pot-smoking, but undeniably similar to the persona Black has spent a career realizing. When Po’s Chinese village is set to select the legendary Dragon Warrior, the impressive kung-fu-versed animal collective known as the “Fantastic Five” (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, David Cross, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu) is bypassed in the selection process much to the chagrin of their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). In a shocking twist of fate, the gluttonous and clumsy Po is chosen instead. That inexplicable/plot-progressing head scratcher couldn’t have come at a worse time, as China’s most feared villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has recently escaped his maximum security prison on a mission to seize the title of Dragon Warrior with only a novice Po in his way. In the meantime, Po must be trained by the disgruntled Five and the bitterly skeptical Shifu.

Because it panders to a youthful audience unfamiliar with the concept of shame, “Kung Fu Panda” offers its fair share of predictable fat jokes, not unlike the decision to make Po insatiably lust after cookies. Still, the writing leaves plenty for adults as the non-action scenes prove lightheartedly enjoyable.

That said, a generous portion of this animated comedy isn’t dialogue at all. Crafted almost in the mold of traditional kung fu movies, it’s the gorgeously animated battle scenes that provide the most alluring draw. Mixing equal parts violent buffoonery and honest-to-God PG violence, it’s the fights that are the strongest and most universally appealing aspect of “Kung Fu Panda.” Being a kids’ movie, the story arrives at some very played-out moral lessons (accepting yourself, accepting responsibility, etc.), but they’re valid nonetheless, so why not reinforce them via an obese panda and his animal pals?

Thankfully, the film also bucks the “Shrek”-initiated trend of gross-out pop culture references coupled with equally unbearable contemporary music. Instead, Dreamworks assembled a voice cast with impeccable timing, used a focused story line and created some of the best CGI action ever put to film. Underneath all that, movie music maestro Hans Zimmer provides yet another exceptional score.

Don’t let the potentially creepy/obnoxious prospect of spending 90 minutes in a dark room with kids deter you; “Kung Fu Panda” is a refreshing take on a genre long since gone stale.