Po (voiced by Jack Black) is a Panda who works at his father's noodle stall. Po has dreams of greatness and looks at the Furious Five, a group of five kung-fu masters, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan), all of whom are under the tutelage of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Shifu learns Tai Lung (Ian McShane, TV's "Deadwood"), a fearsome tiger and onetime protégé, has broken out of the maximum-security prison designed to hold him. Tai Lung wants the Scroll of Destiny. It is up to Shifu's master Oogway to determine which of his Fearsome Five will fight Tai Lung. Eager to see the demonstration, Po garners the attention of Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and he determines Po will receive the scroll of destiny and fight Tai Lung. Shifu groans because he has a lot of training to do.
"Kung Fu Panda", the newest animated offering from Dreamworks Animation, the folks behind "Shrek", "Over the Hedge" and others, is perhaps their most beautiful film yet. The backgrounds are universally beautiful and very pleasing to watch. The attention to detail is striking and a lot of research and work clearly went into depicting this environment, a mountaintop village high above the clouds in China. You really get the feeling you are watching events unfold in rural China, many years ago.
Po, a large Panda, lives with his father, a duck, above their noodle shop, and the attention to detail continues here as well. When Po wakes up, he bangs his head against the ceiling, knocking some pots and pans around. The noodle shop is small and outdoors and this is clearly a rural village. All of this detail is used to great advantage and shows the lengths the filmmakers are willing to go to make a believable, beautiful film.
While the story is also involving and well plotted, it contains few laughs. And this is surprising given the inclusion of Jack Black. I was honestly expecting this film to be funnier, but it is a surprisingly dramatic look at one panda's journey to become an adult. It almost seems like the filmmakers were attempting to make a powerful coming of age story. They have succeeded well in this regard. We feel the need for Po to become a part of the Furious Five. We feel his idol worship and his desire to have some excitement in his life. This leads him to desperately seek a spot to watch the competition between the Furious Five. Then, when he becomes the chosen one, he is naturally reluctant; he doesn't see how he could possibly equal anything close to what his idols already have achieved, what they already are, but he recognizes the call to duty he has received and puts a game foot forward.
As Po trains, he spars with Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman. Both are good, they just aren't that funny. I think the key problem is everyone is taking the film very seriously. This would be great if "Panda" were an animated drama, but it is clearly meant to be funny. There are a few humorous moments and an ongoing joke about Po's need for food, but too much of the film is very serious.
When I told my dad Dustin Hoffman does one of the voices in this film, he asked why an actor of such high esteem would even do such work? Hoffman has, in recent years, taken on a much more diverse range of roles. An actor who used to be known as an Academy Award magnet now regularly takes wacky, supporting roles in films like "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" and animated work. I think a large part of this is because Hoffman is seeking to become more accessible to more people, he wants his work to be seen by more people accounting for the larger variety of roles. Hoffman has always been known for sinking into a role, becoming the character so completely his performance becomes memorable. While the success of his performance in "Mr. Magorium" might be debatable, he uses his voice to great effect in "Kung Fu Panda". He has a quiet exasperation to his voice when he learns who his new disciple will be. Quiet, because he can't possibly question his master who knows all and his decisions are always right. Exasperated, because he realizes what he has to work with and knows it is all but hopeless. But he presses forward.
Ian McShane is the other standout in the cast. As Tai Lung, a fearsome tiger who is currently imprisoned in a special facility, to keep him away from the rest of the community, he is especially villainous. This is the first DreamWorks villain who can hold a candle to some of the great Disney animated villains, like Captain Hook, the Wicked Queen or Jafar. But again, he plays it mostly straight. Shifu is so afraid he might escape this special prison; he sends one of his emissaries to inform the head guard, an armor plated rhino (Michael Clarke Duncan, "The Green Mile") to increase the guard. When the emissary arrives, the guard laughs and explains the safeguards in place to hold Tai Lung. This gives us a glimpse of this special prison and all of the booby traps and safeguards designed to hold this prisoner. Of course, Tai Lung escapes, leading to one of the most elaborately animated, exciting sequences I have ever seen in an animated film.
The rest of the cast is good, but not great and this is one of the factors keeping this film from attaining the greatness it so desperately wants to achieve. Jackie Chan does a good job as Monkey, but his voice is so recognizable, he simply is the character. The same can be said of Lucy Liu, who plays Viper. Each is simply their character, doing a good job of performing the role without bringing anything to it. To be honest, I had to wait until the credits to find out Angelina Jolie plays Tigress. Her performance is extremely low key and unmemorable. In recent years, a lot of animated films have been marketed based on the A-List stars providing voices, included simply for their name value. Many, in turn, simply read their lines, adding little to the characters because they are unable to add to a character using simply their voice. Because of this, many films have suffered. "Kung Fu Panda" has examples of this, but Black, Hoffman and McShane save it.
I recently read that each of the members of the Furious Five practice a different kind of Kung Fu, disciplines that are actually named for the animals they are. This is not something we would probably pick up with the naked eye, while watching the film, but this also points to the level of detail the filmmakers went to to help create this world. It is a beautiful world to travel to. I just wish those travels involved more laughs.