Kung Fu Panda

Jack Black is the premier enthusiast in American comedy. Whatever it is — heavy metal, lucha libre wrestling, music trivia, remaking movies on a cheap camcorder — he throws his considerable bulk into it, unbowed by reality or even physics. In Kung Fu Panda, an amusing and gorgeously designed kiddie fable, Black is the voice of Po, a rotund panda who slaves over noodles in the family restaurant but yearns to be a kung-fu master. In his head, Po destroys thousands of enemies, blinding them with the glare of his “awesomeness.” Jack Black has never been one to skimp on the elaborateness of his fantasies — part of the joke of Tenacious D was that Black and Kyle Gass were playing dinky acoustic sets in bars, but in Black’s mind their thunder was drowning out Thor himself. Po is the perfect match for Black’s eager, bottomless devotion to all things bad-ass.

Adults might find Kung Fu Panda a bit on the thin side. It’s lightweight, to be sure, and hammers on its believe-in-yourself theme a tad too much. Without Jack Black’s optimism, the movie probably wouldn’t work. Po is somehow chosen as the Dragon Warrior, the legendary defender of the peaceful against the forces of evil and rage. He doesn’t really know much about kung fu aside from the occasional glimpse of his heroes, the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Their master, the diminutive Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), can’t believe he’s stuck training this unpromising lump of panda flab. And there isn’t much time to prepare Po for battle, because Shifu’s old student-turned-nemesis Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard driven by fury and resentment, has escaped from prison and is headed for Shifu’s Jade Temple.

Sometimes when I see an animated film like this, with a cast of veterans and hipsters, I wonder what kind of live-action movie could possibly support the same cast. David Cross alongside Angelina Jolie? Jack Black trading lines with Dustin Hoffman? In truth, the Furious Five get disappointingly scant screen time and a paucity of dialogue — I think Jackie Chan has a handful of lines (the idea of casting him as a voice in a kiddie kung-fu flick is more entertaining than what he actually does; he can’t do with his voice what he can with his body and expressions). There are two exceptional action sequences, both having to do with Tai Lung — his escape from captivity, and a brawl between him and the Furious Five on a suspension bridge. The core of the movie, though, is the relationship between two self-doubters, Po and Shifu, and Hoffman, muttering balefully to himself, delivers the gravitas of a master while hitting each laugh with an old pro’s precision.

Everything comes together at the finale, when Po, having learned that his technique is based on his appetite, faces off against Tai Lung, who actually seems to have a point when he growls that he was groomed to become the Dragon Warrior his whole life and was devastated to learn it wasn’t his destiny. Ian McShane brings an authentic darkness to Tai Lung — the disappointment, the pride that has flipped so easily into spiteful rage. McShane’s work on Deadwood was sometimes called Shakespearean, and here, in a summer action farce for kids, he invests what could’ve been a plastic Happy Meal toy with Swearengen-esque perversity. Up against him is Jack Black, the baby-demon rock parodist who once sang about the importance of fucking one’s woman gently. (In another song, he promised “With karate I’ll kick your ass,” which deserves to be this movie’s remixed theme song on a YouTube mash-up.) I’m sure all of this will go over kids’ heads, but I wonder if they’ll look back years from now and marvel at how truly weird the casting of their favorite animated films really was.

Explore posts in the same categories: animation, comedy, kids

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