'Kung Fu Panda'

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Martial arts movies have always had a certain cartoonish element, so DreamWorks' martial arts cartoon "Kung Fu Panda" makes perfect sense.

Taking full advantage of Cinemascope's wide screen to splash quicker-than-the-eye action across striking Chinese landscapes, animators led by directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne deliver a movie that is as funny as it is frantic. Although it's aimed primarily at youngsters, "KF Panda" embraces humor that plays well across age groups and nationalities. Certainly the sustained applause at its Palais debut here bodes well for international boxoffice success.

The stroke of genius is, of course, the film's hero: the big, lovable bear that is the Chinese panda. Sweet looking, perhaps a bit clumsy, seemingly unflappable, what could be an odder hero for a kung fu movie? Transforming a panda named Po — voiced by big, lovable Jack Black — into a kung fu fighter to save a threatened village in ancient times is essentially the entire movie.

He does not start with a lot of promise, only a boundless enthusiasm for the discipline and a seeming inability to perform its simplest tasks. His dad, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong) — that discrepancy is never clarified — runs a noodle shop and expects his son to follow in his web steps.

But Po longs to train under Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and alongside his heroes, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). He miraculously fulfills this impossible dream when the inventor of kung fu, Oogway the turtle (Randall Duk Kim), anoints him the long-prophesied Dragon Warrior.

Comic calamities pile on top of one another until Shifu recognizes Po's true driving force: his insatiable appetite.

A bun or a cookie snatched from his grasp has Po performing feats of remarkable agility and no little ferocity. He is soon ready to face the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard who descends on the fearful village to exact revenge his own rejection as the Dragon Warrior.

Like most chop socky movies, "KF Panda" strays not at all from its twin goals of action and comedy. Whatever points the script by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger wants to make to children about pursuing goals, it does so quickly and gets back to the fights. A battle along a rope bridge between the Furious Five and Tai Lung and Po's showdown with his adversary dominate the final third of the film after the mostly comic run-up to those combats.

The animation is clean and vivid: Backgrounds and sets are appreciative tributes to Chinese landscape art and architecture; the fighting style of each animal, whether a snake, a tiger or a monkey, is subtly rendered; and the filmmakers clearly have studied the best Asian martial arts films to spark inspiration for those gravity-defying stunts. (partialdiff)
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