Dreamworks Animation SKG are a quirky bunch - when they're not milking the Shrek the Cow, they do come up with some original films, and whilst they never reach the heights of the other animation behemoth Pixar's outings, they're usually entertaining but forgettable affairs.
Not so with Kung Fu Panda - which is perhaps a sign of things to come that maybe, just maybe, Pixar need keep closer guard of their Animation Kings crown.
The story goes that panda named Po - voiced with zeal by Jack Black - is selected by Master Oogway to be the next Dragon Warrior in what can only be described as a freak accident. The Dragon Warrior is a chosen one, destined to defend the land against the dastardly Snow Leopard and kung fu master Tai Lung. There's a hitch, though - Po is a little fat, a little lazy and far too enthusiastic for his lack of skill, and the fact that he's been chosen as the Dragon Warrior does nothing but anger the Furious Five - a crane, viper, mantis, tigress and monkey, all kung fu masters of their respective styles - and their mentor Master Shifu.
Anyone familiar with Kung Fu movies will recognise the formula - young guy, crap at kung fu, must defeat old grand master to achieve respect from those he covets. So no points for originality - but it more than makes up for it in the execution. Featuring a beautiful design ethic that is a magnificent throwback to the over-saturated days of Bruce Lee movies, it looks absolutely incredible. But where it really shines is in the execution of the kung fu sequences. From an energetic and breathless escape sequence where Tai Lung breaks free from his own personal hellhole prison, to a hugely inventive and entertaining piece of chop-socky on a slowly and inevitably collapsing rope-bridge, they're positively brimming with invention, and more importantly, it presents us with what computer animation is truly capable of within this context.
That's not to say that it isn't funny - it is, although not as laugh-a-minute as one might expect from the studio that brought us Over the Hedge. Interestingly, Kung Fu Panda completely sidesteps the trend of animation these days of throwing in gags for parents only amid the gags aimed squarely at the kids. Instead, it favours a more broad approach - a shotgun to Shrek's dual handguns style, if you will. It's more broad, but the effect is the same - the audience is still laughing, but here the kids and the adults are laughing together, which is a brilliant achievement for the screenwriters and the directors both. That these laughs come from both physical and verbal comedy makes the achievement all the more striking.
If there are criticisms of the movie to be voiced, they are three-fold. The moral of the story is a little too on the nose for my liking ('beeeee yourseeeeeeelf, pleeeeeeease!'), but then again it is a kids' movie, and subtlety isn't exactly your average nose-picking 10-year-old's strong point - but it is, at least, delivered with some finesse, which raises it above the run-of-the-mill childrens' fair.
The second is perhaps that it's maybe a little flabby to begin with - the excellent, shadow-puppet/anime style dream-sequence aside - giving a real false impression of itself by issuing lukewarm gags and little-to-none of the inventiveness displayed later on in the movie.
Finally, there is a gamut of voice talent that is absolutely wasted - with Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman's Shifu and Ian MacShane's Tai Lung being the only performances that'll stick in your head. There are other, really quite major Hollywood stars lending their lungs here, but you'll be hard-pressed to identify them unless you snuck a peek at the IMDb page before you went in. It's a shame, but this - and all my other quibbles, for that matter - are minor even in the worst of lights.
What's here is very entertaining, and possibly Dreamwork's best outing since Shrek II paved the road for the its franchise to go all tits up. It could even be mentioned in the same breath as Pixar's lesser outings - a fine sign that a studio who was spending far too long wallowing in its own thick, green arrogance has finally pulled the finger out. Definitely worth a look.
Ross' Rating: 7/10