In Kung Fu Panda, Jack Black is the voice of Po, a clown-eyed, sheepishly neurotic, roly-poly panda of no visible athletic ability who trains to become a lightning-limbed martial-arts master. Black gets off a few good lines (”Oooo, my tenders!” he exclaims when Po is bashed in the crotch), but he doesn’t make crazy full use of his wild side — the eager, riffing glee he has shown in films like School of Rock. Instead, Black taps a quality that isn’t so visible when he pops his eyes with mock ferocity on screen. He gives Po a slightly abashed suburban-couch-potato sweetness.
Po, who works in his father’s noodle shop, dreams of kung fu glory, and it certainly seems preposterous that this lazy, soft-bodied bear would attain it. But after causing an accidental fireworks display in the Jade Palace, where the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Mantis (Seth Rogen) — are showing off their twirly, whip-cracking moves, Po is decreed to be the Dragon Warrior, and he starts to train with the Furious Five. That’s when Kung Fu Panda ignites.
As Master Shifu, the group’s Fu Manchu-mustached raccoon of a karate-kid guru, Dustin Hoffman, his voice a-growl, has a wonderful persnickety surliness. It’s as if Yoda were being played by Burt Lancaster. Po’s total lack of skill is quite funny — he’s such a flabby compendium of wrong moves that even his screwups have a bass-ackwards logic that is nearly balletic. But then Master Shifu figures out how to teach this hopeless case the art of kung fu. He uses a bowl of dumplings, which Po is so eager to eat that he’ll scramble anywhere, at any speed, to get at them. Kung Fu Panda is light and goofy, yet the fight scenes, which are the heart of the film, are lickety-split mad fun. Just about all animated movies teach you to Believe in Yourself (the rat who finds the courage to cook! The ogre who learns to love!), but the image of a face-stuffing panda-turned-yowling Bruce Lee dervish is as unlikely, and touching, an advertisement for that message as we’ve seen in quite some time. A-