Kung fu panda: wise heart, sweet art

Are pandas the new penguins? Has animal adorability traded in its dinner jacket for two black eyes? The answer is yes, on the evidence of DreamWorks' latest ani-movie, Kung Fu Panda. Taking as its source the same Hong Kong martial-arts films that inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the new picture provides a master coursed in cunning visual art and ultra-satisfying entertainment.

In a way, the live-action chop-socky films of the '70s were already animated. Their whirling, exhausting, body-punishing stunt scenes tested an audience's credulity; surely real people were incapable of these athletic graces. (But they were, because of the severe training the actors had undergone since childhood.) KFP has fun with the conventions of these old films, but it honors the ethic and dedication behind them; it's true to the Shaolin spirit.

The movie also follows a precept of animation that stretches back to Gertie the Dinosaur, Krazy Kat and Mickey Mouse, through the classic Warner Bros. cartoons and up to Disney's The Lion King, Pixar's A Bug's Lifeand of course Happy Feet: stick to animals. When stylized artfully, they have so much more wit and personality than mere human beings. Not having to attempt a duplication of reality liberates a good animator's imagination. In KFP you'll see this in the spectacular fight scenes, but also in the character sketching, in the subtlety of glances and gestures.

In ancient China, a pudgy young panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) dreams of "legends full of legendary warriors whose exploits are the stuff of legends." In these Technicolor daydreams, even the legendary Furious Five are no match for a panda's bodacity. In real life, or as real as a cartoon fantasy gets, Po is a clumsy doofus, for whom rising from a supine position can take all morning. He has the doughy shape, the domineering amiability and, ultimately, the demented perseverance of an ursine Michael Moore. And Po's job is not to defeat mythical miscreants but to be a waiter in the village noodle shop run by his father (James Hong) — who happens to be a goose, but never mind for now.

When Po hears that the thousand-year-old turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is to anoint a Dragon Warrior that day, he schleps his dumpling wagon to the ceremony. In a crowded courtyard, the greatest fighters of their time, the Furious Five — the Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) — are showily displaying the fabulous skills they have honed under the stern eye of their teacher Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Then, through plot contortions even more acrobatic than anything the Furious Five have demonstrated, Po is declared the new kung fu hero. Shifu is aghast: this clown can't be taught anything. Yet Oggway believes that the accident that dropped Po out of the sky was no accident at all. The roly-poly panda is the one chosen to battle the evil master Tin Lung (Ian McShane), who'll be breaking out of prison any moment now.

KFP's clever screenplay, by ex-King of the Hill writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is a tribute to the effect the '70s martial arts films had, especially on the pre-teen set, when they flooded Saturday-morning U.S. TV in the wake of Bruce Lee's success with Enter the Dragon. A boy who watched those movies would be nearing middle age now, but he'd recognize KFP's plot — of a laggard who undergoes rigorous training to become a great fighter — from many films, including the one that made Jackie Chan a star, the 1978 Drunken Master.