IF THE world of computer feature animation were, say, a couple of characters in a sitcom, Pixar would be the smart, sensitive, well-mannered overachiever and DreamWorks would be the loud, bumbling, insecure, media-addled doofus. Which is why the gorgeous, highly stylized, old-school 2-D hand-drawn animation sequence at the beginning of "Kung Fu Panda" comes as such a big surprise.
For a moment, you're lulled into believing that the studio that never met a moldy pop-culture reference it didn't want to marry has undergone a lightning-bolt conversion to sophisticated, confident storytelling. But it all turns out to be a dream. Literally. The sequence that kicks off the movie is the recurring dream of a three-dimensional panda bear named Po, whose every strand of panda fur is lovingly digitally rendered by a bank of computers.
That's not to say that "Kung Fu Panda" doesn't look good. For a DreamWorks production, especially, it looks fantastic. Gone are the studio's usual penchant for garishness and lack of stylistic unity; the claustrophobic, sealed-in worlds; the horrible neon colors; the feeling that everything's been dipped in a hard plastic coating. Instead, production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Heng, who spent years researching Chinese art and architecture (not to mention kung fu movies), have inserted vast, moody, misty landscapes, fanciful interiors and traditional Chinese colors (red and gold dominate) to give the movie an epic, expansive, ancient quality that's a real pleasure to inhabit.
The character design is clever too. The Furious Five, the greatest kung fu masters in the land, are anthropomorphized animals based on the Shaolin five animal fighting system. There's Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). The action, heavily influenced by Hong Kong martial arts films, is beautifully choreographed.
Then there's the panda, whose main function is to temper all this loveliness by bringing us back down to Earth -- Earth being, naturally, America circa now. Po is voiced by (and in many ways modeled on the persona of) Jack Black. An overweight and lazy arrested adolescent of indeterminate age, Po lives with his noodle-making father in the peaceful valley below the Jade Palace, where Zen master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his disciples, the Furious Five, reside. Po is expected to take over the family business someday but dreams instead of becoming a kung fu master. Not that he has any kung fu skills, or training, or talents. Apart from a complete set of Furious Five action figures and an active fantasy life, he has none of what it takes to succeed in his chosen field. Which is OK! Because what counts, as self-esteem curricula has prescribed and government leaders have demonstrated, is that the panda believe in himself no matter what his limitations, deficiencies or proclivities, and no matter what anybody else thinks.
Po's destiny is altered when, along with the rest of the village, he shows up at the Jade Palace one day to watch Oogway choose a Dragon Warrior among the five masters and winds up getting himself elected instead. Oogway's choice is especially egregious in the face of the danger faced by the community: Shifu's erstwhile top student and son-figure, the Luciferian snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), is said to be planning to escape from prison and attack the valley.
"That flabby panda can't possibly be the answer to our problems," Shifu complains.
To which Oogway replies: "There are no accidents."
That's one example of the many afternoon talk-show platitudes, served up by the wise geezers of "Kung Fu Panda" and meant to pass for Zen wisdom. Oogway also says things like, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why we call it the present." Thankfully, he dies soon afterward.
Shifu eventually catches on to the only motivating factor Po responds to -- food -- and manages to train him into a decent fighter. This discovery leads to the funniest sequence in the movie, but it's pretty dispiriting as far as messages go. The kid who eats unconsciously when he's upset is handed the secret to invincibility after a couple of training sessions? The slacker panda whose favorite word is "awesome" is singled out for heroism when all the other characters have worked long and hard (the definition of kung fu) and sacrificed for what they've accomplished? The message -- believe in yourself even when all evidence suggests you shouldn't -- is annoyingly familiar and frankly overdue for a serious debunking, but it's not about to happen here.
"Kung Fu Panda." MPAA rating: PG for sequences of martial arts action. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In wide release.