Po dreams of being a great martial artist. He longs to have skills, "an awesome aura so awesome, his enemies would go blind from overdoses of pure awesomeness!"
If only he can break free of his "place in the world," his dad's noodle shop. Po wants to bust a move.
But Po is a panda. He can take a licking, sure. But he'd rather be licking a noodle bowl, dipping into the dim sum. He's into Kung Fu. He's even more into Kung Pao.
Kung Fu Panda gives Po the voice of Jack Black and turns the roly-poly Black loose in a comedy that mocks and embraces every martial-arts-movie tradition in the book. Wacky and wise to the ways of the movies it parodies, it's an 85-minute animated stitch.
Things are peaceful in the Valley of Peace, too peaceful. The great enemy of that peace, Tai Lung ( Ian McShane does his voice), is a snow leopard guarded by legions of armored rhinos in the most secure prison anywhere. And when Tai Lung breaks out, disturbing the peace of the Valley of Peace is the only thing that will give Tai Lung peace.
Enter Po. Or actually, "The Furious Five," the greatest students of Master Yoda, um, Shifu ( Dustin Hoffman, as a tiny red panda). They are the hope of the valley, and the lead candidates to be named The Dragon Warrior, to be allowed to read The Dragon Scroll, "the secret to unlimited power!"
Po crashes the naming ceremony and, oddly, is named "the chosen one." He will be the martial artist who defends the valley against Tai Lung, which irks the "Five" — Tigress ( Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey ( Jackie Chan), Viper ( Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) — no end.
"You don't belong here," they say, predictably. But Po is just tickled to meet his idols.
"Wow, you guys are so much bigger than your action figures. Uh, except for you, Mantis. You're about the same."
The master must understand the inscrutable reasons Po was chosen and train his new student. Po must master his appetites and prove himself worthy.
And the Five must fend off Tai Lung long enough for Po to be prepared for the showdown.
Half the fun in Kung Fu Panda is the way Black, Hoffman and others hurl themselves into their voice roles. Legendary Chinese-American character actor James Hong lends vast credibility to Po's Father Goose. Except that Po doesn't want to hear Dad's "We are noodle folk! Broth runs through our veins!" McShane has the growl of a hundred classic Disney cartoon villains.
The movie seems tailored to Black's talents and, frankly, girth. Po is one big porky panda joke, a joke told by a guy given to geeky fanboy riffs.
The other half of the fun is the ways Kung Fu Panda toys with martial-arts movie conventions. The fights are epic brawls, defying gravity, space and time (lots of slow-motion punches, kicks and faces contorted into screams). The martial-arts styles (crane, monkey, etc.) are personified in the animals that represent them. The chopstick "duel over the dumplings," a training exercise that keeps Po from his dim sum, is cleverly mimicked in a later fight with Po on bamboo stilts.
The violence is a bit much for an animated film. The MPAA ratings board snoozed through Prince Caspian and was a little groggy on this one.
But the animation is stunning, with an opening 2-D dream sequence that harks back to the glory days of Mulan. Animating a tubby sack of fur couldn't have been easy, but Po is almost City Zoo real, and School of Rock funny.
And any parent can get on board with these messages, about "following your destiny." "The mark of a true hero is humility."
It takes an Oscar winner (Hoffman) to sell this chestnut — "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That's why they call it 'the present.'" But so is this movie, a gift in a summer that threatens to be seriously short of quality kid entertainment.