>> Kung Fu Panda (7/10)

Kung Fu PandaWhere exactly is the line between cliche and homage? That line is easily found in Dreamworks Animation’s new film, Kung Fu Panda, cutting right down the middle, between adoring tribute and tired idea. Of course, children won’t understand either one. They won’t know that stories about an unlikely “chosen one” are a dime a dozen; they don’t know yet that the “believe in yourself and you can do anything” message is the weakly beating heart of literally hundreds of kids’ films.

Jack Black is Po, a panda bear, and noodle shop waiter, that is selected, seemingly by accident, to become the legendary Dragon Warrior. The Dragon Warrior is to be trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) alongside his legendary students, the Furious Five–Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Vipress (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross)–to defend their village against power hungry Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung, once denied the title of Dragon Warrior, is determined to learn the secrets within the Warrior’s Dragon Scroll, and Po must rise to the occasion, get in shape, and believe in himself if he wants to protect his village.

Like I need another animated movie telling me that the only thing that a person needs to do to experience their life’s fullest potential is to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. It’s tired. More dangerous still is that we may soon be seeing a brand new generation of adults with a lifetime of unfulfilled hopes, that get to carry the weight of unwarranted blame directly on their own shoulders. Sure, it’s a positive message, but it’s still only a close cousin to a similar, more truthful message–be the best you that you can be, no matter what happens, whether you sell noodles or end up a Dragon Warrior. Kung Fu Panda may bear Eastern influences, but when it comes to philosophy, it’s as flat as a gong.

Now that I’ve probably made the film sound like boring dreck, the truth is this movie is oftentimes exciting and beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of good use of realistic camera effects that I can’t remember seeing in a CG-animated film, like extended use of depth of field, that adds photorealism to the stylized character designs. Lighting and ambient weather also add to the realism; there’s a scene with Shifu in a misty cloud that stands out in my memory as looking pretty dang good. These technical flourishes stand alongside gentle humor and well-choreographed martial arts scenes to make Kung Fu Panda into something slightly more than a mild diversion, but still not quite an animated classic.

Anybody under the age of twelve is not going to recognize that Kung Fu Panda is pretty conventional, and, honestly, the kung fu and the Chinese locale will probably feel exciting and fresh to the kids. To me, Kung Fu Panda is as watchable as anything Dreamworks has done before–competent entertainment, but nothing revelatory. I’m sure they’ll make a half dozen decreasingly entertaining sequels to this, in true Dreamworks fashion, and we’ll all be sorry we ever said we liked it in the first place.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

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