Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) is enlightened by a wise elder (Dustin Hoffman).
Like pretty much every other hero of pretty much every other animated movie, the title plush toy in "Kung Fu Panda" needs to learn to believe in himself. Been there, cartooned that, right? But practically everything else about "Panda" is fresh, surprising or beautiful.
Let's start with the beauty. "Panda" opens with a striking, vividly orange sequence that has been made to resemble Chinese shadow puppets, then shifts into a more modern style of computer animation that uses bright, offbeat colors to evoke the natural beauty of China: a deep blue sky dotted with fireflies, a cherry- blossom-colored sunset, emerald valleys, misty mountains, a peach tree on which every flower looks like a pillowy dream.
The ethereal beauty of the images makes for an intriguing contrast with the story, which is long on action. Po (voiced by Jack Black, turning down the energy and volume) is a panda who works in his dad's noodle shop but dreams of being a martial arts hero. Heroism seems unlikely for Po, who is lazy, overweight and a wuss, but when a wise elder (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) tells him it's his destiny to save his people, Po begins to believe in himself.
There's nothing new about the message that we are capable of more than we think, but it's such a great message for a kids' movie that originality doesn't seem like much of an issue. Better yet, "Panda" handles the self-actualizing stuff, even tossing in some tenets of Buddhism, while maintaining a brisk pace and developing
lots of slapsticky humor from the foibles of its characters ("Panda" is the rare computer-animated film that contains not one ironic pop-culture reference to iPods or the Jonas Brothers or "The Hills").
In that regard, "Panda" is less reminiscent of the computer-animated films of recent years than of a newly discovered Disney film that was made 50 years ago, and that is a thing of beauty.
"KUNG FU PANDA"
Directed by: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Starring: Voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman
Rated: PG, for mild violence
Should you go? Yes. The jokey title sells this clever, old-fashioned film short. ***
Find more of Chris Hewitt's reviews here.