June 10, 2008 -- “Kung Fu Panda” takes a very worn storyline, infuses it with smart satire and in-jokes and ties it all up in a very pretty package of beautiful artwork. Those unfamiliar with martial arts movies may not get some of this animated film's many martial arts references, but there are plenty of other entertaining bits in the film for those unfamiliar with the genre. It is a film designed to appeal to all ages, but especially children. It also helps if you are familiar with martial arts films and conventions.
Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po (a possible reference to the master Shao-Lin priest in the TV series "Kung Fu"), an overweight, soft, clumsy, noodle-making Panda who dreams of martial arts glory. He is amazingly chosen as the mighty Dragon Warrior who will defend the valley against the evil leopard, Tai Lung, who has escaped prison. Tai Lung is a master of Kung Fu and cannot be stopped, even by the famed Furious Five: Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey. Po seems to have no Kung Fu skills. He is clumsy, out of shape, undisciplined and preoccupied with food. Master Shifu, his instructor, tries to get him to quit by putting him through very rigorous training, but Po is surprisingly tenacious. The Furious Five are angry with Po's selection as the Dragon Warrior. Each of them think they deserve the title more than the hapless Po. Both Po and Master Shifu must eventually put their doubts behind them in order for Po to achieve true greatness.
This basic plot has been used countless times before, including in the film “Forbidden Kingdom,” released a few weeks ago. It works well here because it is exaggerated to the point of satire, yet it retains a certain fondness for the genre. The main characters are defined pretty well. There is an odd relationship between Po and his father that is never resolved. The artwork in the film is stunning. One scene, the last between Master Shifu and his old Zen Master Oogway, is a fantastic shimmering vision of moonlight and stardust. There are many beautiful scenes in the film. At the beginning of the film is a different kind of visual artistry, a Kung Fu dream of Po's which looks different from the rest of the film, a kind of comic book style. It is flashy and dazzling with a lot of sweeping, two-dimensional lurid flourishes. Most of the rest of the film is in the now-familiar three-dimensional-looking computerized animation, but it all looks great. This is a good film for the whole family. It rates a B.
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