The new animated film from DreamWorks, Kung Fu Panda, bumped Sex and the City from the top box-office spot last weekend and thus struck something of a blow for family-friendly films. Panda stars Jack Black as the voice of Po, a bear working in his father’s noodle restaurant while harboring dreams of kung fu glory. As is to be expected in such films, the plot is entirely predictable, as are the lessons, about a charming oddball who discovers that, by believing in himself, he can be all he longs to be. With wonderful animation and an arresting look, the film is nevertheless a thoroughly forgettable summer offering.
Po is torn between his own desire to become a kung fu master, and the hopes of his father — a goose named Ping (James Hong) — who wants him to carry on the family noodle business. In an early dream sequence, Po imagines himself a heroic kung fu master, who humbly tells his followers, “There is no charge for awesomeness or attractiveness.” In his waking life, he is a physically awkward panda with a flabby, bouncing belly.
Soon, Po’s entire town is abuzz with news that the grand master Oogway the Turtle (Randall Duk Kim) is about to enter the temple at the top of a mountain in order to identify the next Dragon Warrior. The expectation is that the Dragon Warrior will be selected from among the Furious Five. The five, whose trainer is Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), include Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).
Like Cinderella kept from the ball, Po is initially held back by his father. Appealing to his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, he persuades him that the assembled crowds may get hungry and want noodles. So off he goes to play noodle vendor at the ceremony. Before he can enter the temple, he must first scale the mountain’s steps — a difficult task for Po even without his noodle cart. When, after numerous falls, he finally reaches the top, he finds the temple gate closed. What ensues is a protracted attempt at physical humor, as Po tries various means of entering the temple. The futile attempts, moderately funny at the outset, become tiresome when multiplied beyond measure.
Po eventually and quite dramatically manages to enter the temple, where he finds himself at the center of the ceremony. When he is dubbed the new Dragon Warrior, the Furious Five scoff and then plot to make clear his unsuitability. That’s not a very difficult task. As the town awaits the return of the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who has just escaped from a heavily guarded prison and who harbors a grudge against Shifu, the need for a powerful Dragon Warrior becomes urgent. Not willing to give up on Po, Shifu abandons classical kung fu instruction in favor of an approach tailored to Po, specifically to his robust appetite. As with the early scene of Po trying to enter the temple, so too here attempts at physical humor, such as dueling for dumplings, are mildly amusing at first but are stretched to distasteful proportions.
One of the great lures is Jack Black as the voice of Po, but his abilities are not all that well suited to the character of Po. Black delivers some funny lines, but Po’s naïve innocence requires Black to suppress his trademark attitude and humor. Black is not really used in a way that suits his talents until the very end of the film: as the credits roll, Black, with Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo, sings a rousing rendition of Carl Douglas’s 1970’s disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting.”
The other attractive feature of the film is its Cinemascope animation — in IMAX at some venues. The lush and ethereal landscapes, as mesmerizing as anything in animated film, had me urging my kids to take notice of the gorgeous look of the film. There is a scene of characters crossing rooftops at night that looks like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But the mood inspired by these classically elegant compositions is at odds with Po’s juvenile humor and banal moments of self-realization.
The result is an innocuous, mildly entertaining film, whose message is as palpable as it is vacuous: All good things come to those who believe in themselves. Nothing is special in itself; “all that matters is that you believe it is special.” Unfortunately for viewers, that anodyne sentiment seems to motivate far too many makers of family films these days.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.