Kung Fu Panda (PG)
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Of all the studios that have tried to chip away at Disney's dominance of the animation genre, DreamWorks has had the most long-term success. It's won two best animated picture Oscars and soon, all its animated releases will be in 3-D. The studio's in it for the long haul.
That said, "Kung Fu Panda" is the least innovative and most Disney-like animated DreamWorks release to date. It's good, but not great and lacks the universal age appeal and staying power of "Wallace & Gromit," "Chicken Run" or the "Shrek" franchise. The under-10 crowd will probably eat it up, but teens and adults will be largely unimpressed.
Jack Black, a highly animated, easily excited, roly-poly guy in real life voices Po, a panda who shares the same qualities. Living above a noodle restaurant run by his father (a goose), Po fantasizes about being the chosen Kung Fu Dragon Master who battles entire armies alongside "The Furious Five." They would be Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan).
Po, accidentally on purpose, lands in the middle of a ceremony where a village elder anoints him the one who will assume the Dragon Master mantel. The Five are furious about the choice and do everything they can to point out to Po he's woefully ill-prepared for the job. The group's Yoda-like instructor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is equally agitated but tradition and honor force him to forge ahead and whip the blubbery mass that is Po into fighting shape.
The first half of the movie plods along at a relative snail's pace with Po falling down a lot and collecting assorted bruises but never throwing in the towel. Without a real villain to offer up tension, no action movie - animated or otherwise - can get very far.
When Shifu's fallen-from-grace former student Tai Lung (Ian McShane) breaks out of jail, the story finally kicks into high gear. With a dastardly mean streak reminiscent of Scar in "The Lion King," the Snow Tiger Tai Lung is a brawny mass of muscle, bad attitude and of the mind he is the rightful Dragon Master heir. Taking place on a foot bridge at an impossibly high altitude, the ensuing fight scene between Tai Lung and the Furious Five is the undisputable highlight of the film. By itself, this scene validates the price of admission.
Ending in a way most will expect, the closing credits are accompanied with an updated version of the '70s disco hit "Kung Fu Fighting," which is also not the least bit surprising. The movie offers up a simple message in a pleasant way and will keep animation fans mostly satisfied until the headline act of the year ("Wall*E" - a Disney title) takes center stage in three weeks. (DreamWorks)
"Kung Fu Panda" is also available in the IMAX format at the Regal Mall of Georgia in Buford.
E-mail Michael Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org.