HOLLYWOOD — There’s no cuter member of the animal kingdom, so why has he taken so long to land a starring role in Hollywood? The truth is, we like our cartoons to be the less attractive eccentrics: mice, rats, whatever Gonzo is.
But in “Kung Fu Panda,” Jack Black’s panda isn’t cuddly; he’s an overweight dreamer who has more in common with Nacho Libre than Hsing-Hsing. He puts the giant in giant panda.
The adaptation of such a delicate creature to the summer blockbuster habitat — a zoo if ever there was one — could have resulted in a bloated bore of a film. But “Kung Fu Panda” is surprisingly fun and light. It’s also easily the best DreamWorks computer animation yet, far surpassing the look of “Madagascar” or even “Shrek” — not quite on Pixar’s level, but close.
“Kung Fu Panda” begins with a stylish, brilliantly colored dream in which Po (Black) imagines he’s part of the Furious Five, a group of elite kung fu fighters. They are like a Noah’s Ark of warriors: Angelina Jolie is Tigress (who looks a bit like Tony the Tiger’s sister); Seth Rogen is Mantis, an insect whose skills exceed his size; David Cross is the bird Crane; Lucy Liu is the snake Viper; and Jackie Chan is Monkey, whose species you can guess.
When Po wakes up, though, he’s far from their ranks and can’t even conquer a flight of stairs. He’s the son of a noodle shop owner, a goose voiced by James Hong. How a bird fathered a panda is a genealogy jokingly alluded to in “Kung Fu Panda,” but never resolved.
“I don’t dream about noodles, Dad,” Po says. “I love kung fu.”
The Furious Five are led by the Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) whose own guru, the turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), fears their nemesis Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will return and destroy their Chinese valley. All Oogway wants, like Loretta Lynn, is peace in the valley.
Their Chinese town is populated by pigs and geese and no humans, which might sound like an updated “Animal Farm.” But the closest thing here to Big Brother is an old turtle.
To defend them, Oogway must find the “Dragon Warrior” to fulfill an ancient prophecy. As you might guess, Po is unexpectedly thrust into this role despite any evidence of talent, and the movie is essentially about whether he can live up to this destiny.
The plot is standard martial arts stuff, but at every turn, the serious gravity of the kung fu archetype is contrasted by the extreme oafishness of Po. Take, for example, this lesson bestowed on Po by Shifu: “Panda, we do not wash our pits in the Sea of Forgotten Tears.”
He’s plucky, but it’s not Po’s grit that’s endearing; it’s his casual good-naturedness. The Furious Five resent his undeserved opportunity, but when they crush him in training, Po, ever the fan, collects the rubble as a souvenir.
Though most around him have no sense of humor, Po disarms them with his lack of intensity. His name, after all, means the soul, materialized. The fool in over his head is far from a new story, but “Kung Fu Panda” finds life in the old gag.
The elaborate fight sequences (a memorable one is with chop sticks) are as inventive as anything in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But the comedy of “Kung Fu Panda” lies in the deadpan looks and perfect pauses.
Co-directors Josh Stevenson and Mark Osborne, both animation vets helming a major film for the first time, ensure that the comic timing is exact and that their cartoon creations have well-animated eyes. The right eye-roll (and there are many) always trumps a punchline.
The voice work is good all around, particularly from Black, McShane and Hoffman, whose part as tiny guru — a red panda — takes on a shade of Obi-Wan Kenobi with an attitude. Jolie is entirely forgettable, but it’s surely a sign of success that the A-listers recede as the movie rolls.
The most enjoyable character, though, is a small supporting role voiced by Dan Fogler (“Balls of Fury”). As the palace envoy Zeng, he’s a Muppet-like bird so jittery that no flap of his wings is without hazard.
As summer movies get bigger and bigger, they often make us, the audience, feel smaller and smaller. The bright “Kung Fu Panda” is a simple and lighthearted exception.
“Kung Fu Panda,” a DreamWorks Animation SKG and Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action. Running time: 91 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.