“Kung Fu Panda”
Rating: Three out of five stars
At Showcase and Quality 16
DreamWorks

Clif Reeder

Animated movies today fall into two categories: the ones that hawk those painfully cheesy morals that even little kids have learned to laugh at, and those that have slightly amusing, yet completely useless, pop culture references jumping off the screen at an alarmingly constant rate. Thankfully, “Kung Fu Panda,” the latest creation from the studio that brought us “Shrek” and “Over the Hedge,” has nothing of the latter. Had it been able to similarly avoid the tepid, false sentiments of the former, it could have been a truly memorable film.

The story of a young panda named Po (Jack Black, “Nacho Libre”) – whose dreams are the only thing bigger than the flab under his belly – “Kung Fu Panda” is set in the mystical (fictional) Valley of Peace in China. The legendary warriors known as the Furious Five protect the valley: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (University alum Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross, TV’s “Arrested Development”), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Mantis (Seth Rogen, “Knocked Up”). But even these masters cannot save the valley from Tai Lung (Ian McShane, “The Golden Compass”), a deranged evil warrior who has just escaped from prison.

Lung wants the Dragon Scroll, an ancient relic that contains the secret enabling a warrior to become the greatest fighter ever. The Furious Five and their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), have been entrusted with guarding the scroll until the true dragon warrior claims it. For some reason – it’s unclear exactly what – the chubby, clumsy noodle-seller Po is thought to be the dragon warrior. Hilarity ensues.

Through the course of Po’s rigorous training to become a kung fu master – in the couple of days before Tai Lung swings by and destroys the valley – the movie finds its mark. More than just jokes about Po being fat (though there are some of those too), the bulk of the humor comes from the awkward interactions between Po and his comrades, many of which seem all too genuine. We can identify with Po being the odd one out, a guy who has big kung fu dreams but a bigger body that stands in the way of realizing them.

There is another side to the story: the “master training a great student, who then becomes evil and tries to take power” plotline ripped directly from “Star Wars.” Not only is it an obnoxiously lazy mode of execution for the film, it also adds an unnecessary, cringe-inducing aspect of cheesy morality to a film that would have been just fine without it. Obviously the plot has to have somewhere to go, but “Kung Fu Panda” has so much else going for it that this type of predictable plot twist is unfortunate – not least because it brings boredom to an otherwise fun film.

There is so much in the film that is quirky and refreshing: the exotic setting, the wonderfully playful score and Black’s lovably sarcastic take on Po. Yet it’s all marred by an abusively conventional plotline that insists on taking the film the way of familiar family fun rather than innovative, genre re-defining originality. That’s going to mean dividends at the box office, of course, but it’s also a huge waste of a promising concept.

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