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Kung Fu Panda

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Kung Fu Panda
Directors: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Screenwriters: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris
Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Ian McShane
Running Time: 92 mins
Certificate: PG

With penguins marching, dancing and surfing through Hollywood in recent years, it's no surprise that they're all but exhausted as cinematic subject matter. On the lookout for a cutesy black and white replacement, DreamWorks has turned its attention to the docile panda.

In this latest animal-centric animation, Jack Black voices Po, the eponymous martial arts-loving bear who longs to escape his life as a waiter. A striking opening sequence introduces his idols the Furious Five, a legendary fighting squad comprised of Tigress (Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Liu) and Crane (Cross). Po's dreams of one day fighting at their side are dashed by his well-meaning father (bizarrely, he's a goose!), who insists that his son's future lies in serving noodles since "broth runneth through our veins".

When ageing turtle guru Oogway senses the return of the evil Tai Lung (McShane) to the Valley of Peace, he instructs red panda Master Shifu (Hoffman) to teach the ways of the ancient Dragon Scroll text to a chosen one. The Furious Five assemble, believing one of them will be anointed the "Dragon Warrior". When Po is unexpectedly chosen to fulfil the prophecy, he joins up with the dismayed martial arts team and begins his kung fu tutelage.

Kung Fu Panda is a colourful, extremely enjoyable if workmanlike animated romp. It gives a refreshing new slant to the Rocky-style against-the-odds victory story that's been told a million times before. The Panda creative team displays a keen reverence for chopsocky and Asian cinema with the elaborate action scenes repurposed from Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle and the bold opening and closing credits paying homage to Miyazaki’s unique hand-drawn animation.

The scenery renderings look stunning and the action scenes are punchy, particularly a face-off between Tai Lung and the Furious Five on a rickety wooden bridge. A training montage - something this type of film couldn't exist without - complete with Po silhouetted against the sunset and a battle with Shifu for the last dumpling deftly mixes action and humour.

However, Kung Fu Panda's comedy is a broad and slapstick, with character and story sacrificed to plough through the 92-minute running time at speed. Brevity can be a virtue in this age of bloated blockbusters, but here there's a need to build stronger foundations to support the film. Black’s Po is rounded out nicely, physically and in terms of personality, yet the supporting animals are background dressing. It's difficult to recall Jackie Chan's character actually speaking.

Hoffman in particular sounds extremely bored, his whole Splinter-esque wise master delivery occasionally lapses comically into Jackie Mason. Oogway, a senile Obi-Wan Kenobi-type, spouts endless Zen drivel ("today is a gift, that is why it is called the present"/"one meets his destiny on the road taken to avoid it"), before dematerialising in a swirl of leaves.

DreamWorks has a reputation for being the brash and bawdy younger relative to the more refined and elegant Pixar. A torrent of witless fart jokes and an over-reliance on pop culture gags in the last two Shreks would certainly reinforce that notion. Yet Kung Fu Panda avoids that perilous route and delivers a solid hour-and-a-half of entertainment. Unfortunately the film's supporting characters are too thin and the story a bit too familiar for it to ever connect or come alive in the way that Pixar's best do.

Kung Fu Panda's central theme is that everyone is capable of something special as long as they believe in themselves. The Incredibles noted that if everyone was special, then nobody is. That kind of smart observation illustrates why DreamWorks' latest is still one step behind its arch animation rivals.


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