Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda ★★★★½

An absolute delight, and by my reckoning the first true indication that DreamWorks could be a genuine competitor to the likes of Disney and Pixar in the realm of quality family animation. Back up, Raya and the Last Dragon: this is animated wuxia done right.

This movie is so visually breathtaking, and not just for the quality of its textures or its water effects. This is a timeless beauty, one born of painstakingly fluid animation that is a clear and constant labor of love. This movie makes kung fu look not just badass as all get out, but majestically dance-like. Who could have possibly expected that what was advertised as one long fat joke starring Jack Black could be so artful?

And speaking of, who could have guessed this movie would be so body positive? The whole moral comes in not changing Po into a proper warrior, but finding the value in who he truly is and developing the worth that is already there, flab and all. "There is no secret ingredient" indeed. Po must learn to accept his own value, to be sure, but the real arc is that of his master, Shifu (played with gravelly dignity by Dustin Hoffman), who must look past Po's unorthodox outward appearance and see the destiny within, abandoning his prejudices and pride along the way. The relationship between the two is terribly effective.

Indeed, the film almost entirely avoids leaning on the typical DreamWorks conventions: there's nary a fart joke or pop culture reference to be seen. There is a bit of an overreliance on big name talent to fill the voice roles: there's really no reason for the Furious Five to be voiced by the likes of Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu when they get about five lines apiece. I also wish that a movie that centers Chinese culture so much had found more opportunity to fill out their cast with Chinese actors, though two of the most memorable characters are voiced by notable Chinese American talents. The immortal James Hong voices Po's adorable supportive adopted father Mr. Ping, whose authentic mixture of humor and pathos steals every scene he's in. Meanwhile, lesser-known star Randall Duk Kim (the Keymaker from The Matrix Reloaded) plays Master Oogway, an eccentric old mentor played to the hilt but impossibly loveable and unforgettable despite his rather sparse screentime.

Then of course there's Ian McShane as Tai Lung, one of the coolest villains in animation. The character isn't over-reliant on McShane's earthy grumble for gravitas, however: his very first scene, which sees him effortlessly and singlehandedly escape an absurdly secure prison built just for him, features no dialogue on his part yet does an incredible job of establishing Tai Lung as a legitimate and awesome threat.

The movie as a whole doesn't feel the need to stuff itself with chatter and jokes, and is all the better for it. It leans on its dynamic and arresting visuals (plus Hans Zimmer and John Powell's serene, sublime score) for heart, humor, and a hefty helping of old-school martial arts badassery, and that is what makes it so special.

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