Kung Fu Panda opens with a dynamic and visually striking dream sequence, in which ancient Chinese panda Po (voiced by Black) imagines himself a great kung-fu warrior, taking on all foes and teaming up with a group of fighters known as the Furious Five. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, it’s full of bold colors, canted camera angles and a jagged animation style somewhat reminiscent of the TV cartoon Samurai Jack. But once Po wakes up, we’re dumped into the actual movie, directed by Osborne and Stevenson with a visual style virtually identical to that of any recent DreamWorks Animation release (Over the Hedge, Madagascar, the Shrek movies, etc.).
The movie turns out to be perfectly innocuous, right about in the middle of the DreamWorks quality spectrum, which means that it’s predictable and sporadically funny, sufficiently entertaining for kids and mildly amusing for adults. Black does his typical hyperactive-slacker shtick in animated form as Po, a pudgy panda who spends his days selling noodles in his father’s shop and fantasizing about kung-fu adventures. A series of mishaps lands him in the middle of a ceremony where a revered master names him the Dragon Warrior, a chosen fighter who will bring peace to the land and fend off the evil Tai Lung (McShane).
Once gruff Master Shifu (Hoffman) and the actual Furious Five dismiss Po’s potential for martial-arts glory, it’s a clear, straight line to the point at which he proves them all wrong and saves the day. The filmmakers thankfully don’t bother with extraneous elements like contrived misunderstandings or interspecies love interests (Jolie shows up as the fierce Tigress, and then barely has any lines), and even the villain’s origin is dispatched in a simple, matter-of-fact flashback. The movie is entirely efficient in its storytelling and its delivery of the standard “believe in yourself” message, and features a few exciting, well-animated fight sequences along the way. Black is generally funny as the likable Po, and the whole thing wraps up right about the time you’re getting ready to check your watch.