Like the rest of the western world, I love Pixar - from Toy Story to The Incredibles to Ratatouille, they've delivered some of the finest, most timeless and age-proof entertainment of the last thirteen years. Even their lesser efforts like A Bug's Life and Cars make the other kids' movies that surround them at the multiplex look leaden and trite. But this casts the harsh, judgmental light of comparison on Dreamworks, and although Shrek was a fun novelty seven years ago (one that has rapidly aged I might add), I haven't been even remotely impressed by the work they've put out since then, pop culture-infused cookie-cutter kiddie flicks awkwardly constructed around their voice stars (the fish with Will Smith's face will forever haunt my dreams).
So I was groaning with the worst of the haters at the Kung Fu Panda teasers which promised Jack Black hardly playing a character so much as doing his shtick, and - how's this for creative zest - talking animals! Which left me befuddled when far more favorable reviews than negative began pouring in, not just from the boring-ass national media, but from far more independent Internet sources I trust! So I had to go see for myself, and while Kung Fu Panda isn't a pockmark on a timeless piece of art like last year's Ratatouille, it's a lovingly constructed, humorous, and more-than-competently made tribute to old kung fu movies and a solid piece of entertainment. I genuinely liked it.
First off, unlike the Shrek ilk, this movie contains absolutely NO pop culture references whatsoever other than the innate stylistic similarities to the kung fu flicks it lightly satirizes and pays tribute to. None. It stands on its own feet. Secondly, while the titular panda is very much an avatar for Jack Black's standard goofy personality, the movie doesn't make the easy mistake of just taking that and letting it sit there like a limp fish (voiced by Will Smith) - while it mines that particular style for humor all the way through, the character is forced to take responsibility and evolve, and the evolution is pretty much the same standard you would ask for if this movie were the same story starring Jack Black done in live action. Citizen Kane it's not, but there is a character arc. Third, the animation leaves shit like Madagascar choking to death in its dust. No, it's not Ratatouille or Wall·E, but the characters are fluid and vibrant and the art and settings have a vaguely dusty, ancient, ethereal, Chinese feel to them that doesn't feel phoned in at all.
Also, the infinite potential of animation is actually taken advantage of to produce some pretty nifty kung fu / fight scenes. It's obviously all synthetic, being animated and whatnot, but the choreography and ideas actually build on that to do neat things that couldn't be done in live action (at least not easily and without millions of wires). There are old-fashioned kung fu fights with kicks and blocks and punches and jumps, that have a sense of momentum and energy. None of the action blew my mind to pieces but it was all entertaining to watch. As was the comedy, which was pretty much all either slapsticky type mishaps or building on the "Jack Black" personality, but relatively little of it felt juvenile, and I had some laughs.
Of course, it's not perfect by any stretch. The story - fittingly for a kung fu movie - is very simple, straightforward, and doesn't innovate in any way. None of the characters besides Po the panda, his primary mentor Shifu (skillfully voice acted by Dustin Hoffman), and the villain receive any development whatsoever; they are pretty much all paper-flat, and it seems a shame that they have Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, and Jackie Chan voice acting but barely use them for more than a half-dozen lines each. But I don't think the kids this movie was basically made for will care, and not having ten million fucking pop culture references, this movie actually won't painfully age year by year like certain movies starring green ogres played by Mike Myers. So I'd give Kung Fu Panda a thumbs up, not an ecstatic one, but a comfortable one.
3 Stars out of 5