GENRE: Cartoon feature
THE PITCH: A fat panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black), who cooks noodles and worships a team of martial artists called the Furious Five, turns out to be the unlikely choice for the Dragon Warrior, a kung fu hero destined to save a valley of talking animals in fairy-tale China.
MONEY SHOTS: Po struggles, with slapstick results, to watch the Furious Five in action. Evil leopard Tai Lung ("Deadwood's" Ian McShane) escapes from an escape-proof fortress. Tai Lung and the Furious Five (including Angelina Jolie as Tigress) battle on a rickety rope bridge. Po and kung fu teacher Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) engage in a hilariously well-choreographed battle over a dumpling. Po discovers his food- and fat-based fighting style in combat with Tai Lung.
BEST LINE: "Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend," announces Black in the film's first line, sounding like he's about to launch into a Tenacious D power ballad.
BATHROOM HUMOR: Despite being the home studio of the Shrek series, Dreamworks goes easy on the bodily-function jokes here, apart from some gags about Po's posterior, bad breath and hygiene. "Panda, we do not wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears," scolds Shifu.
HIT SINGLE: Over the closing credits, Jack Black and Cee-Lo sing Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting," a joke that's a little too on-the-nose. (Incidentally, there's a sweet, silent little "stinger" at the end of the credits.)
INSIDE JOKES: Apart from the song, Kung Fu Panda avoids obvious pop references in favor of loving evocations of kung fu lore. The Furious Five — Tigress, Crane, Monkey, Viper and Mantis — all represent actual martial arts styles. The endless staircase to the Five's home is a familiar sight from Kill Bill and zillions of other chop-sockey flicks. When Tigress soars over rooftops, you realize the film has a literal Crouching Tiger and a figurative Hidden Dragon.
VOICE CAMEOS: Bona fide martial arts legend Jackie Chan provides the voice of Monkey, and Kill Bill's Lucy Liu speaks for Viper. The ubiquitous Seth Rogen speaks for Mantis in his third voice role of the year after his turns as a hobgoblin in The Spiderwick Chronicles and a mouse in Horton Hears a Who!
PRODUCT PLACEMENT: No contemporary brands turn up, but Po conveniently owns action figures of the Furious Five.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The fighting-fanboy jokes may not be classic, but they're good enough: Po gushes over the Furious Five even when they kick his ass. With surprisingly exciting fight scenes, Kung Fu Panda boasts the most visually appealing animation of any Dreamworks cartoon feature. It cleverly blends traditional Asian designs with the kitsch of your favorite cheap Chinese restaurant.
Kung Fu Panda 4 stars Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Stars the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie. Rated PG. Opens Fri., June 6. At area theaters.
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