Slacker panda Po (Black) gets more than he bargained for when he is selected as the Dragon Warrior - a fabled kung fu master - and pitted against a vengeful snow leopard (Ian McShane).
With the exception of the first Shrek and Aardman’s efforts under its aegis, DreamWorks Animation has tended to pale considerably when compared to the Pixar monolith. Shark Tale, Bee Movie and Madagascar were mediocre efforts, stranded in a morass of quickly dating pop-culture references, uninspired gags and a general absence of the spirit and visual acuity that sets John Lasseter’s mob apart. And, apart from an excellent Manga-style dream sequence that opens the picture, it seems after the first 25 minutes or so of Kung Fu Panda that the run is going to continue. There’s nothing particularly compelling here, as Jack Black’s Po gets accidentally selected to become the fabled Dragon Warrior, and tries desperately to prove himself to wise old Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his new, sceptical dojo-mates. In fact, it’s pretty rote stuff, as Po topples over, bumps into things and sends stuff flying like a fat, furry version of the Chuckle Brothers.
But then something rather wonderful happens, ratcheting the film up to the dizzying heights where Pixar and a few select others reside. That something is an escape attempt by the movie’s villain, Tai Lung (voiced with relish by Ian McShane), a psychotic snow leopard so dangerous that he’s been imprisoned in a mountain hellhole constructed especially for him. In an exhilarating sequence, Tai Lung manages to negotiate the three fiendish levels of the jail in a flurry of punches, kicks and gravity-defying leaps that culminate in a magnificent series of vertigo-inducing shots. In fact, ignore the fact that you’re seeing combinations of panda, snake, tiger, snow leopard, crane and monkey duking it out, and chances are that the kung fu action sequence of your dreams is here.
From a devilishly clever sequence where the ‘Furious Five’ take on Tai Lung on an unravelling rope bridge, to a hugely enjoyable training sequence between Shifu and Po and the final showdown between Po and Tai Lung (featuring the funniest use of slo-mo we’ve seen in ages), directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson take advantage of the limitless possibilities of CGI to bring us action on a scale, and of a type, rarely seen before.
But it’s not all about (surprisingly violent) fisticuffs or roundhouse kicks. There’s a level of visual beauty here that’s a notch above anything DreamWorks has attempted before - a sequence where the ancient master, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), blends with a cloud of cherry blossom is achingly gorgeous. And, while the movie doesn’t deliver frequent belly laughs, it does get funnier as it goes along, with the relationship between Po and Shifu particularly rich in humour. Of course, it’s all leading to a standard ‘be yourself’ message, but while the kidlings are digesting that tidbit of profundity, you can wallow in action that well and truly socks it to your chops. Hard. You’ll never look at Ling-Ling in the same way again.
Rudimentary plot and merely decent gags aside, this is the finest DreamWorks Animation effort since the first Shrek, chiefly because of its astonishing visuals and kinetic kung fu sequences.