By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The world's greatest martial arts warrior can't wrap a Black Belt around his hefty waist. He doesn't have the eye of the tiger, more of a plush toy's pleasant gaze.
Meet Po the panda bear, and prepare to enjoy the most unique animated adventure since Surf's Up.
Kung Fu Panda is a dead-on replica of chop-socky cinema from Bruce Lee to Jet Li, with the usual moral lessons of loyalty and risk given a childish touch. First-time directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson computer-generate an ancient China setting to rival anything noted director Zhang Yimou builds for real, populated by mystical, butt-kicking critters like Po.
Except Po doesn't easily wear the chosen one's crown. He's actually lazy as pandas are prone to be, and clumsy when he decides to move. There's no more perfect voice than Jack Black's for a boisterous bear with high hopes and low chances of reaching them. This performance ranks among animation's finest: silly and solemn when required yet never to either extreme.
Po is sleeping when the movie begins, introduced by his manga-influenced dream of meeting his heroes, the Furious Five kung fu masters. Not likely, since Po is resigned to working forever in his father's noodle house.
Fate offers the chance: The Furious Five are making a rare public appearance to decide which one will be selected Dragon Warrior. The position entails a showdown later with villainous white leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a former pupil of the Furious Five's spiritual leader Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). The secret weapon to defeat him can be attained only by the Dragon Warrior, and Tai Lung wants it first.
Po literally crashes the ceremony in a fireworks-fueled fiasco, shocked when the wisest teacher, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), anoints him as the next Dragon Warrior. Shifu is determined to train Po so strenuously he'll quit. The Furious Five are perturbed that this graceless outsider has been blessed, especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie), who coveted the honor.
Kung Fu Panda proceeds in predictable fashion, with Po buckling down, Shifu loosening up and the now-Furious Six squaring off with Tai Lung. The movie is almost too reverential of classic martial arts movies that often became tedious while punches weren't being thrown. But every frame is gorgeously designed, the arch dialogue delivered with commitment or comical flair.
A better cast of voices can't be imagined but could be better exploited. Nobody can steal any show from Black, but Hoffman gives him a run for the funny. Jolie gets the tiger's share of dialogue among the Furious Five; Jackie Chan's Monkey speaks so seldom that his casting is more of an inside joke, while Seth Rogen's Mantis is unrecognizable.
Kung Fu Panda winds up as a fresh take on a familiar moral of being true to yourself, never getting too wrapped up in technical beauty to simply be fun. The martial arts motif is wonderfully suited to animation since those flicks were cartoons of sorts anyway. Why it never happened before is a mystery; that it will happen again is a given.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/