" Look how she moves! That’s just like Jell-O on springs. "
— Jack Lemmon (regarding Marilyn Monroe), Some Like it Hot

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Kung Fu Panda isn’t the greatest animated movie in the history of animated movies, but it’s definitely an amiable romp with a decent message for the cubs.

Pure Awesomeness

Chubby panda yearns for greatness
Chubby panda yearns for greatness

It’s a tale as old as time. Chubby panda yearns for greatness, but the broth of the family noodle business runs deep in his veins and instead of being a master of the KAPPOW! he’s a mere grasshopper in the ways of the wok.

Well, all of that changes when Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, The Matrix Reloaded), a really old, pokey turtle, declares that it is time to select the Dragon Warrior, the legendary being of ultimate kung fu coolness.

It’s assumed one of the Furious Five will assume this awesome mantle (and really cool title). Come on, it’s a no-brainer when your choices are Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), a stealthy tiger; Monkey (Jackie Chan, Shanghai Knights), an, um, agile monkey; Viper (Lucy Liu, Shanghai Noon), yeah, a swift viper; Mantis (Seth Rogen, The Spiderwick Chronicles), a praying mantis who spends more time kicking butt than praying; and Crane (David Cross, Alvin and the Chipmunks), a crane who stands up to injustice.

OK. So these mavens of martial arts spend more time meditating and practicing their arts than thinking up awesome names for themselves. The point is, they’re cool, man! They kick it even when they’re kickin’ it.

Nobody in the village wants to witness this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime event more than Po (Jack Black, School of Rock), the poor panda with big dreams. If Po had a last name in order to be able to have a middle name, his middle name would be “Tenacity.” There’s no quit in this kid when he puts his mind to it and when he finally makes it into the Dragon Warrior ceremony, he does so with such unintended panache, he is declared the Dragon Warrior.

Oops.

Level Zero

Considering Kung Fu Panda is from Dreamworks, the house behind the Shrek flicks among many others, it’s surprising that this story of a chubby, heavy-eating panda includes virtually no toilet humor. It’s too busy telling its earnest, well-meaning story to be distracted by such things.

Ultimately, the message is that nothing is impossible. At first, of course, that would seem to not be the case when the challenge facing Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rainman), the mousey kung fu master, is to turn the plump panda into an agile, rough-and-tumble kung fu king.

If time was on Shifu’s side, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big challenge, but it’s not. Tai Lung (Ian McShane, Shrek the Third), an evil, angry tiger, has escaped the deep, dark recesses of his prison and wants to wreak vengeance on the village.

Kung Fu Panda barrels through the standard story with a self-assured ease, confident in its characters, cast, and computer-generated animation. The best part is that the key messages, about believing in yourself and following your dreams, escape the schmaltzy muckety-muck that can so easily plague this kind of material. Maybe it helps that it’s all presented in a fairly calm, zen-like manner that asserts the adage that there is no such thing as an accident. Yes, everything happens for a reason.

It helps when your lead character is played by Jack Black. He owns the role of Po.

Son of a Noodle Man

Kung Fu Panda is loaded with Black humor. As in Jack Black humor. He plays off his “awesomeness” riffs from School of Rock and Tenacious D, imbuing Po with the same urgent sense of all-important fandom that can be found in his rock-heavy roles dating back to High Fidelity. When Po meets the Furious Five, he immediately comments on how they’re so much bigger than their action figures (except Mantis, of course).

But that giddy fan humor is tempered by Po’s own challenge to be something more and accomplish something beyond the confines of the noodle bar. And Black is more than up to the challenge to stretch out beyond his own stable of jokes and he makes Po a truly likable cartoon star, one worth cheering for.

The movie, written by a tag-team of four scribes with titles like King of the Hill, Josh Kirby: Time Warrior, and Bulletproof Monk under their collective screenwriters’ belts, manages to mix the obvious jokes with some good zingers, and then it throws out a good curveball or two.

At one point Po’s father, a goose named Mr. Ping (maybe that makes the panda Po Ping), stops in the midst of a climactic moment to reveal a secret to his panda son. Since Mr. Ping (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China) is a goose and he’s looking at his big ol’ panda child, it’s all set up as a revelation along the lines of “you’re adopted,” but instead it falls back on one of the movie’s own threads involving Mr. Ping’s secret ingredient soup and the truth behind that secret ingredient.

Clearly Kung Fu Panda has its own set of rules and it’s more than willing to play by those rules.