* * *
Looks great and is good fun but Kung Fu Panda is a few surprises, laughs and engaging characters short of leaving a lasting impression
Take a collection of animals, an unassuming hero in need of a dose of self-belief, mix with action-packed kung fu moves and exquisite vibrant visuals, and you've got Kung Fu Panda, the latest Hollywood computer-generated animation from Dreamworks, out just in time for the holidays.
Jack Black takes centre-stage as the voice of Po, a roly-poly Panda who works with his father (who, for some unexplained reason, is a goose), in the family noodle restaurant. While Po's father dreams of the day his son will take over the family business, Po dreams of becoming a kung fu master and hero.
Po lives in the Valley of Peace under the protection of the Jade Palace, which is the residence of Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), who created kung fu to protect the soft and weak from the hard and strong. It's also the home of Po's heroes, the Furious Five - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) and their trainer, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
Po's naturally large size, love of food and general laziness puts him into the former "soft and weak" category, but when the valley comes under threat from the evil snow leopard warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane), Po is surprisingly named by Master Oogway as the Dragon Warrior, the Chosen One who will be able to defeat the powerful Tai Lung. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) gets the unwanted and seemingly impossible job of trying to turn Po into a lean, mean fighting machine.
The visuals are strikingly colourful and the animated action masterfully done, it's just a shame the storyline doesn't have the same dynamic energy as the rest of the film. The "believe in yourself / follow your dreams" message is sweet but it's an overdone theme and, as a result, the story is utterly predictable.
If you've ever wondered how important it is to get the right voice talent for an animated character, then Kung Fu Panda illustrates just how crucial it is. Black owns this film as Po, he's loveable and alive without being too over-the-top. Hoffman and Duk Kim managed to give their characters some personality, but Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan are all wasted talent and don't make an impression. The result is a film that lacks those extra loveable characters that add the laughs and make this genre of film memorable.
Maybe first thing on a Sunday morning it's hard to rustle up a laugh, but in a theatre filled with both kids and adults there were very few out-loud laughs. When they did happen, it was mostly thanks to Po's slapstick, kung fu moves. A few more laughs would have rounded off this project nicely.
But all in all, Kung Fu Panda is a good flick that should keep the kids happy these holidays and will be a pleasant distraction for their parents.
Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Michael Clarke Duncan
Director: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Running time: 88 mins
Rating: PG (Contains violence)
Screening: SkyCity, Berkeley and Hoyts Cinemas