It’s tough being a cartoon in a world where everyone is waiting for WALL.E. Like being in a band when The Beatles became huge, attention is elsewhere. Kung Fu Panda, though – this summer’s first big ’toon – won’t struggle to be heard. Why? Because it stars Jack Black, a man unaware of subtlety.
In DreamWorks’ Pixar-challenger, Black voices Po, a fat, lazy panda who likes to spend his days dreaming of the Furious Five – a quintet of kung fu master animals (Tigress, Viper, Monkey, Crane, Mantis) taught the art of the old ‘Hi-yah!’ by mousey Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But when hilarious old-codger turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a senior moment and appoints Po as the chosen one to fight big-cat baddie Tai Lung (Ian McShane), his “There are no mistakes!” mantra seems naïve at best.
Packing in moves that will make kung fu fans froth, Panda is a wild training-then-fighting film that live-action martial arts movies could never replicate. From the chaos of Tai Lung’s escape from an ultra-high-security prison to the fire/spikes/chopsticks lessons dished out to Po, there are constant stunts and tricks. What’s more, having a goose be the lead’s dad is just one example of the sharp humour within. Oft surreal, occasionally inspired.
Such a shame, then, that the Furious Five amount to so little. Featuring the talents of Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan (liberated from his fiftysomething body as Monkey) and Seth Rogen, their roles are either peripheral or pointless. Cute, sure, but simply an excuse to topline the cast with A-listers.
So it’s Black’s film and Po fully embeds his persona – only one ‘Rock!’ pose from the actor in a bear suit. Like Homer Simpson with his boxing tactic of getting pummelled a lot, Black’s Po is a likeable, shambolic creation. Pity about the persistent use of “Awesomeness!”, though. Because it’s a word that should’ve been left behind in 1991…