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Panda adventures in China

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Each week, the Browser features some pop-culture places on the World Wide Web offering the coolest in free interactive sounds and action.

A furry fellow's epic struggle to master the martial arts is chronicled in "Kung Fu Panda" from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks. An all-star cast led by Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie lends voices to the computer-designed cartoon.

Although the film won't be in theaters until Friday, younger fans will find plenty of Far East fun at the film's official Web site (www.kungfupanda.com).

An opening screen introduces visitors to the animated stylings of the Furious Five, a team of the greatest warriors in the world, as well as a clumsy, out-of-shape Panda named Po. The scenes meld into a cartoony world of ancient China loaded with temples, mountains and forests backed by a soothing, stringed instrumental.

A panoramic view of the animated lands loads, and visitors can scour seven locations to find eight main characters simply by moving and clicking the mouse.

The presentations of environments mix a beautiful collage of stills from the movie with video clips and flashing icons that can be clicked to continue exploration. Highlights of my travels include a stop by the Sacred Peach Tree, a bridge called the Thread of Hope and the fiery Training Hall.

Anytime a character is found hanging out in a location, he can be clicked on to open a multimedia biography. The selection includes his background, video clips, a gallery, some words on his fighting styles and a generous number of downloads, including emoticons, buddy icons, wallpaper, e-mail signatures and a screen saver.

A secondary level of navigation is found at the bottom of the site, linked to a Kung Fu Panda icon. A click on the menu leads to more site highlights, the Activities and Games section.

Projects are a selection of printables ranging from coloring pages to puzzle sheets or buildable paper crafts such as 3-D characters, takeout boxes and backpack tags. The games are even more impressive, with a choice of five challenges that range from a simple slider puzzle to throwing stars in Po's bedroom.

Youngsters also can perfect their mah-jongg and matching skills to receive points to be applied to the crowning achievement of the site.

That big bright spot is the online multiplayer game Po's Kung Fu Challenge, a free, PC-friendly fighting game mixing animated action and collectible-trading-card-type strategy. It requires a software download compatible with PCs using at least the Windows XP operating system.

After players register, they download and install a software package to control Po as he fights single foes in arenas from the movie. The player first chooses one of the Furious Five as trainers - Tiger, Viper, Monkey, Mantis or Crane - and can purchase cards based on available points (that's where conquering other games in the site and being rewarded pays off) or blow points on accessorizing Po.

The battles are fought selecting cards equivalent to attack and defensive moves and trying to diminish an opponent's health meter.

As cards from a personalized deck are used, the characters come to life in a slick, three-dimensional presentation with a flurry of action. It's an ambitious effort that works best with the quickest of computer systems.

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