Before seeing Kung Fu Panda, I guessed the plot went something like this: A big dopey Jack Black-voiced panda bear dreams of becoming a kung fu fighter but has to reach deep within himself to find the courage to do so. In the process, the naysayers that surround said panda will learn a little something about judging a book by its cover. And it turns out, this is basically the case. However, going into it I wasn't worried that I knew the storyline, I was worried that it would be dull. If this tired premise isn't done well, it's just boring and a waste of time.
But the truth is, I was surprised and delighted by the filmmakers' decision to just stick to making this movie what it should be: light, visually interesting, and funny. It's as if they were telling us (grown-ups): "Look, we know a movie about a panda doing kung fu is just fun and we're not going to bore you with animated animal soul-searching. Instead, we're going to give you a cute, totally conventional story, without pausing to explore what makes the praying mantis tick."
To which I would like to respond with: thank you DreamWorks! To see why I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this flick and why I think it's the perfect summertime family film, read more.
The word that keeps springing to mind when I think about this movie is "surprising." Jack Black is surprisingly restrained and while there is no mistaking that voice, this is a warmer and fuzzier Jack Black: charming, sweet, a little bumbling, but the nicest guy in the world. And all of those words also describe Po, the chubby, out of shape panda at the center of the story. Po works in his father's noodle shop but dreams of one day becoming a kung fu master like his idols, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan), who have all been taught by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
According to a prophesy, it turns out Po is destined to save his village from a scary villain. Po's destiny makes the Furious Five resent him, and it means that the cranky Shifu has to teach the big clumsy panda kung fu. This is where I thought we'd be in for some predictable wax-on-wax-off moments, but again I was surprised by how lovely and irreverent the scenes were between Po and Shifu. Once it's time to get down to business and the kung fu really gets going, it is surprisingly good. It's no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but it's genuinely exciting and well-executed.
Another example of smart decision-making has to do with Po's dad — who is a bird. The movie flirts with explaining how this is possible, but hilariously never goes for that father-son moment where he admits Po isn't really his. Instead, we just giggle along with the absurdity of it. In the end, it's a briskly paced movie that is aware of how many times the audience has seen this same thing (be it an animated feature or a martial arts film) and figures a way around all that monotony by piling on the charm and honing in on the sweet nature of the story. You'll probably leave wearing a surprised little smile.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures