How many underdog kidpic characters have been told “You just need to believe” in recent years? Whatever the ample number, add one more to the list with “Kung Fu Panda,” a nice looking but heavily formulaic DreamWorks animation entry. The tale of a bumbling, pot-bellied, black-and-white bear who has greatness thrust upon him when anointed to protect his community, the vocally star-laden effort features an abundance of broad, buffoonish slapstick that will play perfectly well with kids to desired B.O. effect. But overall mild impact will likely prevent this from joining the top commercial tier of animated attractions.
In keeping with the Chinese setting, first-time directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne have gone out of their way to create some beautiful rural backgrounds for the simplistic foreground action, so there is always something to distract the eye (beginning with a clever Asian-style DreamWorks logo). But comic inspiration is distinctly lacking in Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s script, which delays the dufus’ metamorphosis into hero for a full hour and largely feels structured to accommodate the maximum amount of action, much of which is intended to be funnier than it is.
For no reason other than the fact that he accidentally turns up at the right place at the right time, roly-poly Po (voiced rambunctiously or obnoxiously, per individual taste, by Jack Black) is identified by the ancient, Yoda-like turtle sage Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the long-awaited new Dragon Warrior. Said designation had been expected to go to one of the area’s prodigious Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen), all martial arts virtuosos who trained under diminutive wolf Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
Whether or not Po is chosen because Oogway has become senile remains uncertain, but what does become clear is that Po, once he learns the Secret of the Dragon Scroll, will have to battle the fearsome Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a kung fu master so resourceful he’s able to escape from a mountain prison manned by 1,000 guards. Even he, however, isn’t so much a villain as a creature rejected by the inscrutable Oogway, who long ago passed him over when he seemed the natural choice to become Dragon Warrior.
Even by moppet-defined standards, the situations, characters and motivations here are extremely elementary and lack nuance; other than Po and his prescribed transformation, none of the other figures reveal dimensions not fully evident at their initial appearances. Scripters are similarly unforthcoming with any dramatic surprises, making for a film in which the inevitable climax feels unduly postponed, the brief running time notwithstanding.
Pic comes to semi-inspired comic life in just one sequence, in which Po, who thinks he’s mastered his kung fu technique, duels Shifu with chopsticks over some dumplings.
More serious action scenes, notably one of the Furious Five battling Tai Lung on a long suspension bridge and the climactic mano a mano, are ramped up in conventional fashion and backed by a booming score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell.
Filmmakers draw upon Asian art and animation styles, as well as mountainous geographic settings inspired by the Li River Valley, to create some splendid and unusually detailed widescreen CG images. Color is used carefully to pop dramatically at key moments, helping make the visuals the most sophisticated aspect of the otherwise mild accomplishment.
Aside from Black’s overbearing readings, voiceover work ranges from solid to tasty, with the latter including Hoffman’s sly shadings for the master teacher, McShane’s injection of unexpected feeling into his impersonation of a scorned would-be champion and Kim’s over-the-hill intimations for the past-his-prime sage. Star names for the Furious Five have relatively few vocal opportunities to shine.