Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osbourne & John Stevenson, 2008)
At the very soul of DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda is a quotation from the father (James Hong) of Po (Jack Black), the titular panda: "The secret ingredient to the secret ingredient soup is that there is no secret ingredient." The pot-bellied panda does not need decades of kung fu training or the secrets of the Dragon Scroll to defeat the deadly Tai Lung (Ian McShane), he only needs himself and his voracious appetite for food. As such, the soul of Kung Fu Panda is as generic as the quotations written on a Hallmark Card; and the same has been the perennial soul of almost every movie coming out of the mediocre animation studio: from the ogre who rescues both a princess and a kingdom despite his being an ogre; to the janitor fish who with the help of a vegetarian shark was able to survive a shark mafia; to the domesticated zoo animals who were able to adapt to the wild.
I guess in a market that is saturated with computer animated films, I desperately needed one with a secret ingredient and none of that "the secret ingredient is that there is no secret ingredient" crap. Luckily, Kung Fu Panda turns out to be a genuinely entertaining romp despite its unabashedly meager ambitions. The movie is funny most of the time (thanks mostly to Black's personable voicing). The action sequences are kinetic and at some moments exciting, despite them being animated, and despite the animation being computer generated.
It helps that the directors Mark Osbourne (who directed some episodes of the successful and hilarious Nickolodeon show Spongebob Squarepants) and John Stevenson have a bit of sense in their heads. Apart from the fact that the animation here ranges from serviceable to spectacular, the movie has a palpable personality. While Black leads the cast with his zany voice work, the rest of the cast (most especially Dustin Hoffman (as serious kung fu master Shifu), Randall Duk Kim (as grandfatherly Oogway) and Hong) provide ample star power and flavor. The five kung fu greats, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Crane (David Cross) don't get to do much, but they add a bit of variety to the romp. By shying away from easy laughs (fart jokes and other toilet-inspired humor) and mining the wealth of its basic idea of kung fu fighting animals in China, Osbourne and Stevenson were able to come up with something worthwhile, an unhealthy but tasty mix of Hong Kong influences and purely Hollywood commercial sensibilities.
Kung Fu Panda is a good start, at least for the young ones who might dig tales of underachievers going on to do great things. In fact, a bit of research for the movie's millions of viewers would open for them a treasure trove of forgotten gems that might provide longer lasting satisfaction than a summertime spectacle. If only to spark a genuine interest for the little ones to browse through the titles that are gathering dust in any video store's bargain bin, Kung Fu Panda is a definite recommendation (but of course, I would prefer people to just skip on this and munch on the classics).
Easier to find is Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2005), where some of the gags and stunts are borrowed from, but let's really start with the influence for the panda which is the inimitable Sammo Hung who despite his physical heft, can kick ass like no digitized character can. Start with his The Magnificent Butcher (Sammo Hung & Yuen Woo-ping, 1979) or Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung, 1980). Then there's Jackie Chan's non-Hollywood flicks, most famous of which are his Drunken Master movies, where he plays a lad who trains in the art of the Drunken Fist (conveniently, since he loves his wine) to defeat an evil martial arts master. Further down history are the works of King Hu (Dragon Gate Inn (1966), A Touch of Zen (1969)), Chang Cheh (The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), Golden Swallow (1968)), and Liu Chia-Liang (Executioners from Shaolin (1977), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)). There's just a lot more in this world than hungry pandas and irate tigers.