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A good movie should appeal to all ages, and anyone who thinks they're "too old" for a popular film is more likely to be insecure about being caught seeing — and liking! — a "children's movie." Nonetheless, I didn't think last summer's Kung Fu Panda was original or appealing enough to warrant my box office dollars. But the recommendations of friends encouraged me to catch this animated hit on DVD, am I am glad to have heeded these senseis' advice.
The movie's titular panda, Po, is the sort of character you'd expect to be played by Jack Black, who provides the voice: an overweight good-for-nothing who spends his days dreaming of escape, without wanting to do any of the work that would elevate him from the mundane. But fate is a funny thing, and Po soon finds himself a student in the temple of the patient turtle, Master Oogway, and his pupil, the firefox Master Shifu, who is training The Furious Five. Each of the five represent a different animal and art form: tigress, mantis, monkey, viper, and crane. This manifestation is not an original idea; the forgettable video game T'ai Fu demonstrated much of the same culture and plot as this film, and it's no coincidence that both were developed by Dreamworks. But unlike that 1999 PlayStation game, Kung Fu Panda has both style and substance in one memorable package.
The movie makes this mark predominantly through its cast members, the most interesting of which is Master Shifu, played by Dustin Hoffman. It is Shifu, not Po, who faces the greatest challenge, as not only must Shifu confront the external force of the power-hungry leopard Tai Lung, but he must also struggle with his own fears and failures. He is a tragic character akin to Obi-Wan: having raised a young boy of questionable parentage to be a hero, only to have him fall to the dark side, he now must train a young man of similarly unknown background to undo his past sins. As in such martial arts films as The Karate Kid, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Hunted, the hero must be trained in an unrealistically short time to face the greatest evil. Yes, it's cliché and predictable — but that doesn't stop Kung Fu Panda from being a ton of fun.
My two favorite scenes both feature Master Shifu. The first is a harmless training exercise in which he and Po use chopsticks to battle over their dinner's last dumpling. It's a safe example in which we see that Shifu has grown from a cynical master to a proud parent, and that Po has grown in skill and maturity as well. This sets the stage for a later battle between Shifu and his former disciple, a fast and fierce engagement in which we can sense that something terrible is at stake. It's a great dichotomy that showcases the versatility of the character's and the film's tones — especially compared to the final battle, which requires the gaijin rely on dumb luck to overcome the enemy.
The supporting cast of the Furious Five is voiced by Jackie Chan (The Forbidden Kingdom), David Cross (Arrested Development), Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu. It's almost a shame such a talented cast was hired for an action movie, as their characters spend more time moving than talking.
This cadre in its entirety gets as much screen time as their singular villain, Tai Lung. The impossible feats he performs demonstrates him to be a complete master of his environment and his own body — an inner and outer oneness. Even if he is a completely fabricated (and evil) character, I still found myself admiring the control that comes with martial arts.
Dreamworks demonstrates a similar mastery of computer animation with this film. I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of traditional, hand-drawn animation, but Kung Fu Panda is evidence that movies of this style must no longer be specified to be "CGI" or "computer animated", as was once the case with the rare and groundbreaking Pixar films. But the DVD has some fun live-action extras, including a demonstration of how a master chef makes noodles, and instructions on how to use chopsticks (a skill that defies me to this day!).
Kung Fu Panda is an enjoyable exercise in witty dialogue and frenetic action. Fan of action comedy in the style of Jackie Chan will berate themselves for missing this animated entry.