Kung Fu Panda

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (World Premiere Out of Competition)–The locale, not the message, is the thing in DreamWorks new animation feature, “Kung Fu Panda,” a passable but neither great nor particularly inventive family entertainment. The film repeats the same notion of heroism that kids have been hearing for decades in American films, both animated and live-action fare: “Listen to your heart. You have to believe in yourself, to find the inner strength to become a real hero-no matter who you are.”

And so the new creature, a big, chubby and clumsy Po, well voiced by comedian Jack Black, joins the company of the star of DreamWorks' trilogy “Shrek,” the lovable green ogre, voiced by Mike Myers in three commercially successful pictures.

Receiving its world premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest, “Kung Fu Panda” will be released by DreamWorks/Paramount June 6.

Are there any animals/creatures left for Hollywood fare, now that we have seen sharks, fish, bees, birds, pigs, and last but not least penguins, celebrated in animated fiction (“Happy Feet”) and non-fiction feature (“March of the Penguins”).

Though Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger's storytelling is quite calculated and John Stevenson and Mark Osborne's filmmaking is by-the-book, what gives this “Kung Fu Panda” its flavor is the distinctive locale, an eye-popping setting that can distract-but only up to a point–from the overly familiar tale and its standard characters.

Saga begins with the kind of yearning that many misfits and outcasts would be able to relate to. Po is the biggest fan of kung fu, but he is stuck with the boring daily work in his familys noodle shop. When hes unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Pos dreams become reality and he joins the world of kung fu to study alongside his idols, the legendary Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

They are all placed under the leadership of their guru, Master Shifu, played by Dustin Hoffman, who gives the film's best performance, imbuing his lines with wry, ironic, perfectly timed comic reading.

Obstacles to reaching the goal come in different forms, shapes, and villains. First, there is the vengeful and treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (the splendid Ian McShane) who's headed their way, and its up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat. Can Po turn his dreams of becoming a kung fu master into reality

Po puts more of his heart than his skills into the challenging task, and in the arduous but ultimately rewarding process manages to turn his greatest weaknesses into his greatest strengths.

The casting is superb, even if the secondary characters, particularly Jolie's Tigress, don't have much to do or say. Along with the above mentioned stars, the international ensemble of Kung Fu Panda includes Randall Duk Kim as Oogway, the wise leader and inventor of kung fu; James Hong as Mr. Ping, Pos father and noodle maker; Michael Clarke Duncan as Commander Vachir, the proud mastermind behind the seemingly inescapable Chorh-Gom Prison; and Dan Fogler as the nervous palace envoy Zeng.

“Kung Fu Panda” is, of course, based on the universal myth that, whether its an ogre trying to regain what is rightfully his, or a group of displaced zoo animals finding their way back home, audiences of all ages love to root for the underdog-the “Rocky” syndrome (“I wanna be somebody”) in feature films. Anyone who has ever struggled against the odds should be able to empathize with unlikely heroes in these entertaining moralistic tales. Po's obstacle-strewn journey touches a chord in our individual and collective imagination.

Well-cast, Jack Black plays his role as a plump, drowsy, huggable black-and-white bear who has only one aspiration in life: to become an expert in a martial art that relies on agility, mental prowess and lightning-fast reflexes. What begins as a formidable, foolhardy quest gradually becomes a reality-movie reality, that is.

Unlike most animations these days, the “Shrek” franchise being the prime example, there arent many pop culture references in this movie. But the goal to combine a family comedy with an action-packed kung fu movie, respectful of that particular genre as we knew it in the 1970s, is only partially achieved.

Even so, there's fun in watching the humorous contrast, suggested in the title itself, between our perception of kung fu as an extremely athletic martial arts, requiring self-discipline and physical ability, and our notions of pandas as soft, sleepy, roly-poly and cuddly creatures.

The Asian scenery is novel for U.S. animation and marvelous to behold. Drawing on Chinese art and animation styles, as well as geographic sites reportedly modeled on the Li River Valley, the directors produce vibrant widescreen CG imagery, rendered in vivid colors and shades.

Moving the story and the battles, which occupy most of the last reel, at a fast clip makes the movie more entertaining and also helps divert attention, at least while watching the picture, from its formulaic story.

Thought the reaction in Cannes was decidedly mixed–it's really not a festival movie. Self-reflexive as they were, the first “Shrek” movies had wit and savviness lacking in this picture, which favors spectacle of scenery and thrilling fights that for certain viewers will bring fond recollections of Jackie Chang's stunts when he was doing them for real. Nonetheless, I have no doubts that kids would like “Kung Fu Panda” when it opens worldwide in a couple of weeks.

Cast

Po – Jack Black Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman Tigress Angelina Jolie Tai Lung – Ian McShane Mantis – Seth Rogen Viper – Lucy Liu Crane – David Cross Oogway – Randall Duk Kim Mr. Ping – James Hong Zeng – Dan Fogler Commander Vachir – Michael Clarke Duncan Monkey – Jackie Chan Credits

A Paramount release of a DreamWorks Animation SKG presentation. Produced by Melissa Cobb. Executive producer, Bill Damaschke. Co-producers, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger. Directed by John Stevenson, Mark Osborne. Screenplay, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger; story, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris. Editor: Clare Knight. Music: Hans Zimmer, John Powell. Production designer: Raymond Zibach. Art director: Tang K. Heng. Visual effects supervisor: Markus Manninen. Character animation: Dan Wagner. Character TD supervisor: Nathan Loofbourrow. Supervising animator-fight choreographer: Rodolphe Guenoden. Supervising sound editors: Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl.

MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 90 Minutes.