Zohan gets his butt kicked by a panda. Take that, Adam Sandler!
A rotund and clumsy panda named Po (Jack Black) lives a boring life in the Valley of Peace. He obediently helps his father (James Hong) in the family noodle shop, but he dreams of becoming a kung fu master like his idols the Furious Five, a martial arts team lead by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and Oogway (Randall Duk Kim).
Shifu and the Furious Five protect the valley, and when their nemesis Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison, they must choose a Dragon Warrior. This warrior, according to legend, is the only one capable of defeating Tai Lung.
Through some unlikely twists, Po is chosen as the Dragon Warrior. He must then complete a crash course in kung fu and find the confidence to defend the valley and become a hero.
"Kung Fu Panda" is a first-rate production and a sign that Dreamworks's quality is catching up with Pixar's. The voice cast is full of A-listers (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu), the animation is exceptional and the story is a tightly structured tale with nothing that seems cheap or irrelevant.
In most of his roles, Black teeters on the brink of obnoxiousness, but "Kung Fu Panda" capitalizes on the loveable loser side of his personality. His unflagging devotion to kung fu here is similar to his zeal for rock ‘n' roll in "School of Rock."
With Black's help, Po exudes boundless enthusiasm for martial arts, even though for much of the film his lack of skills makes him a misfit. Yet each time Po is knocked down, he bounces back. He is just joyful to be in the presence of true kung fu masters. It's hard not to like such an optimistic character. Of course, it helps that we're looking at an adorably rendered panda rather than Black (no offense, Jack).
"Kung Fu Panda" falls into the Jackie Chan category of Martial Arts films. It's about acrobatic movements and fight scenes that exploit props in interesting ways, and everything is punctuated with sight gags. In other words, even though the animals are slugging it out, it's all taken very lightly. No bloodied bodies of furry friends here.
Just as in any Jackie Chan film, there are plenty of pratfalls and other slapstick jokes. Physical comedy is difficult to pull off for living actors, and Dreamworks deserves credit for making digitally animated sight gags work so well.
This is one of those family movies that adults may enjoy more than their kids. It's much funnier if you recognize all the kung fu movie clichés referenced, so most of the under 4-foot-tall crowd will miss some jokes. That will hardly ruin the film, though, because it turns out that watching a panda fight and fall down is pretty darn funny on its own.
"Kung Fu Panda" gives us every reason to just sit back and enjoy the film. Unlike so many family movies, it doesn't distract us with thinly veiled agendas (like "Happy Feet") or by trying to do too much (I'm talking to you again, "Speed Racer").
While the believe-in-yourself message is nothing new, it resonates anew in this context. In its humble way, this is a surprisingly positive, uplifting movie.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.