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Wednesday, June 4, 2008 01:39 am

Panda doesn’t have to pander

Wonderful story, sparkly cast make this cartoon a winner

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Untitled Document A reporter once asked legendary movie producer Sam Goldwyn to name the three most important elements in a successful movie. His reply: “Story, story, story.” Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have taken this piece of advice to heart with their charming new feature, Kung Fu Panda. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger take a familiar premise and infuses it with a degree of charm and humor that makes it seem fresh. That the actors assembled to provide voices are first-rate and brilliantly cast doesn’t hurt, either. Po (Jack Black) is an overweight panda with oversized dreams. Stuck working in his father’s noodle shop, he longs to be a master of kung fu, but his large size and voracious appetite stand in his way. Youthful dreams die hard, and he heads to a ceremony where a new Dragon Warrior will be named. Through a set of quirky circumstances, Po is named the one who will fulfill this prophecy, much to the dismay of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross), otherwise known as the Furious Five. The prophecy doesn’t sit well with Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), either — he has the unenviable task of training this chubby wannabe. Po must also worry about Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a fiery snow leopard who believes that he should have been named the Dragon Warrior and is intent on taking Po out to prove it. The Rocky template at work here is one of the most dog-eared premises around, but the sense of style and wit at play here elevates the film above that premise to something unique. Though it would be silly to say that there is chemistry between the characters (they’re cartoons, for cryin’ out loud!), there is a real spark between the performers. The comedic give-and-take, especially between Hoffman and Black, drives the film, and though the members of the Furious Five don’t have nearly enough time on screen (sequel, anyone?) each makes the most of his or her brief time in the spotlight. Chan’s postmodern take is particularly enjoyable to fans of the martial-arts genre. The film looks just as good as any other modern animated feature, and its main distinguishing factor, the Far Eastern setting, provides a fresh palette for Western audiences.
The question I always ask where animated films are concerned is “Will parents enjoy it as much as their kids will?” With its short run time, outlandish action, and blazing wit, Kung Fu Panda will wind up being a favorite for all. The first true family film of the summer not only inspires kids to strive to realize their dreams but may also prompt adults to get in touch with their inner pandas. 
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