In the same way that Robin Williams’ tiringly manic shtick suddenly got about 100 percent more tolerable when it was coming out of the mouth of the shape-shifting genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” Jack Black’s triumph-of-the-fat-guy routine gets a much-needed shot in the arm with “Kung Fu Panda,” a new animated comedy about a very unlikely martial arts champion.
Roly-poly Po (voiced by Black) dreams of glory as a kung fu master, fighting alongside the legendary Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Snake (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen) — but in his waking hours, he’s stuck working as a waiter in his father Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) noodle shop. (Po is a panda and Ping is a goose, but the former seems to have no idea that he might have been, say, adopted.)
When word gets out that the evil tiger Tai Lung (Ian McShane) — the previous acolyte of the Furious Five’s master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) — will return to the Valley of Peace to perpetrate another spree of violence, wise old turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) decides that the time has come to crown a new Dragon Warrior, who will be allowed to read a sacred scroll said to endow unlimited power.
Everyone in the valley climbs up the mountain to the temple where the ceremony will take place but Po gets there just as the doors are closing, since he’d been trying to lug his noodle cart up the many, many steps. (Those steps, and Po’s difficulty navigating them, provides “Kung Fu Panda” with one of many delectable running gags.) Having exhausted all other ways to see through the temple fence, Po propels himself over it with a fireworks cart, landing in front of Oogway, who names Po the Dragon Warrior.
Shifu and the Furious Five are, of course, horrified by the prospect, but Shifu finally realizes that, in Oogway’s words, “there are no accidents,” and that Po could indeed be the Dragon Warrior, particularly when the teacher devises a regimen that requires the always-hungry Po to climb, battle and balance himself in order to receive almond cookies and dumplings.
Plot-wise, it’s every “Rocky” and “Karate Kid” movie taken to a wonderfully ridiculous extreme, but even if you know exactly where “Kung Fu Panda” is going, it’s a mostly entertaining journey. I’m no fan of casting big movie stars as voices in animated films, but Black and Hoffman have great fun taking their characters from exasperated adversaries to bedgrudging comrades. (Jolie, however, shows no gift whatsoever for the animated medium; just because you’re a talented screen actress, it doesn’t necessarily mean that skill will translate to voiceovers, which require a discrete set of dramatic chops.)
“Kung Fu Panda” is no classic of the medium, but with the number of cynically crafted “family” entertainments churned out on a regular basis, it’s one that will tickle kids and adults alike. And if it makes one sports-loving overweight kid feel less self-conscious about following his athletic bliss, so much the better.