I've always found funnyman Jack Black's trademark shtick to be enjoyable -- in small amounts. As a headliner, however, Black's act quickly wears thin on me. There's only so much of his crazed mannerisms I can handle. Jim Carrey thinks the guy is over-the-top.
Which is why I wasn't looking forward to seeing Kung Fu Panda, the latest talking-animal tale from Dreamworks Animation. Dreamworks, of course, are the Shrek folks, and given the precedent set by that franchise and its endless sequels, spin-offs and promotional tie-ins, I had dark visions of giant unfunny panda bears invading my nightmares for decades to come.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Kung Fu Panda is an unexpected delight -- and while I still hope to avoid a repeat of the Shrek experience, the prospect of future Panda-related projects isn't nearly as sickening as it once was.
Black lends his voice to the title role as Po, a lazy, chubby panda who daydreams of kung-fu greatness while slinging bowls of noodles at his family's restaurant. Dream soon becomes reality, however, when he's plucked out of obscurity by the local spiritual guru and designated as the fulfillment an ancient prophesy calling for the arrival of a kung fu messiah.
Which seems like a pretty cool gig for Po, who gladly basks in the townsfolk's admiration -- until a sinister snow leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from a maximum security prison and threatens to ravage the entire town. Po initially cowers at the prospect of facing the seemingly invincible Lung, but with the help of wise Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and counterparts Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), he's quickly transformed from a doughy palooka into the Bruce Lee of the animal kingdom.
There's nothing necessarily new in Kung Fu Panda -- it's essentially The Lion King with martial arts (and without the Elton John soundtrack, thankfully). It's your typical underdog tale, with Po playing the part of a fat, irreverent Rocky, but it's got a funny script that keeps the story moving while for the most part restraining Black's annoyance factor. The computer animation is customarily awe-inspiring -- think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on steroids -- as we've learned to expect from the genre.
The only major gripe I have against Kung Fu Panda is Black's positively awful rendition of Carl Douglas' disco hit "Kung Fu Fighting" during the closing credits. Heed my advice and make a beeline for the exit when you hear the song's opening notes -- or risk irreparable damage to your auditory nerves.
Disagree? Let me know at tleupp@Reelz.com