Jack Black inhabits the animated panda called Po with so much of his signature whimsy that audiences get a double dose of Black’s comic persona. Po is an adopted child to a family of Chinese cooks and is expected to carry on the family business, but Po dreams only of becoming a great kung fu master.
At a high mountain temple, lives the great Master Oogway (a comic turtle voiced by Randall Duk Kim), who chooses Po to become the temple’s new Dragon Warrior over its highly skilled “Furious Five” monks (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogan). In order to protect the temple from the wrath of escaped prisoner and kung fu snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) Po must master the Secret of the Dragon Scroll with the help of a miniature wolf named Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). In spite of its strict adherence to limited formula constraints, Kung Fu Panda is an enjoyable kid’s movie full of zippy cartoon imagery and heartfelt vocal performances.
I once asked Jack Black what he liked to do in his spare time. “I likes to doodle,” he said in that instantly recognizable Jack Black way. It’s the kind of answer that wins you over for its irreverent sense of childish liberation.
It’s significant that in animated movies, vocal performances are always recorded before a team of animators set about matching the characters’ mouths and actions. It’s this process that enables an actor like Jack Black to put his stamp on a character in subtle and dramatic ways.
Po is a lazy, overweight panda with enough desire in his heart to get him up the Temple Mountain on the day when the next keeper of the great secret will be chosen. Like Neo in The Matrix or Michael Angarano’s young character in The Forbidden Kingdom, Po is groomed as the next great defender.
He will have to learn discipline, respect, and a brand of confidence that can only come from facing his greatest fears, namely entering into combat with the deadly Tai Lung. Ian McShane stands out in the role of the vengeful snow tiger that once apprenticed at the temple to be the next Dragon Warrior under Master Oogway. but was rejected for his mean streak that threatened all of those around him. McShane’s emotionally powerful voice is perfectly suited to grounding his character as an enemy of outsized proportions.
Objectively, there isn’t that much of a difference between The Forbidden Kingdom (starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li) and Kung Fu Panda, except that the latter is better suited to younger children. The animation on display is top-notch, but it’s Jack Black that steals the show. Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a bright musical score for the harmless action. MTW