Here’s the thing. "Kung Fu Panda" should suck. All the pieces are in place for this to be a positively insufferable film. It was the latest in the DreamWorks “plug in a new species of animal to the lovable loser that accidentally could” formula. Its motifs fell into that dangerous Ethan Hawkesque realm of “kind of Buddhist.” And the protagonist created by Mark Osborne, John Stevenson and their writers was the perfect platform for Jack Black to be both abrasive and excessively overeager. But here’s the other thing. "Kung Fu Panda" didn’t suck - not even a little bit. In fact, it was downright enjoyable. It was funny, honest and lightheartedly charming enough that the warmth actually felt tangible. And the clincher: The kung fu action looked really fucking cool. One of the most literal ways to prove this is the reaction it garnered from children, who logically took up half the theater at the showing I attended. If I closed my eyes, the roars of laughter would have made me think I was sitting in the audience for a night of Chris Rock stand up circa ‘97. And these laughs were absolutely earned. The combination of this ongoing laughter and the children created one of the more refreshing movie experiences I’ve encountered in some years. I was able to escape the over-analysis of disconnected plotlines and deeper underlying meanings and simply enjoy a film for what it was. That’s not to say the former of that statement are irrelevant, but the idea of losing yourself completely in a film is one so innocently beautiful it can temporarily supercede such concepts to make them feel like mere moot points. The plotline is age-old. Panda cub is. Panda is consigned into a life of soup making to continue the tradition of his father, who is, inexplicably, a duck. However, panda dreams of breaking apart from the noodle lifestyle and becoming a kung fu master with skills rivaling those of “the 5,” a sort of animal collective of warriors trained by the most esteemed, sage, kung fu master in all of China (Dustin Hoffman). But he is not a kung fu master because he is fat, clumsy and, well, a panda. Then through one colossal accident (unless you believe the possible Taoist motif that “there are no accidents”) said panda is chosen as the great warrior that will defend his entire village from a downright peeved snow leopard (Really? Not even like a bobcat or something?). And then the panda must come to terms with both himself and his potential destiny. And sure, the transition from chubby blundering panda into still chubby panda warrior might have seemed a bit rushed. But the light-hearted humor of the film kept the audience from raising such concerns. While the addition of Seth Rogen’s dry humor as the praying mantis warrior managed to steal several scenes despite his few lines, the humor’s catalyst was certainly Jack Black, who might have finally found the role he was born to play. Black, who plays a bumbling idiot more closely resembling a caricature of himself than an actual human being almost every day of his life, finally found a role in which this is not a hindrance but a godsend. The panda even manages to have his mannerisms, which makes one realize it’s sort of a shame Jack Black wasn’t born a chubby cartoon panda.
My Rating: 4 out of 5