- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

Directors don’t hire Jack Black because of his brilliant character acting; they hire him to be Jack Black, a rotund chatterbox who pings about with all the freneticism of a pinball. Casting him is a risky proposition, as the actor’s personality can come across as overpowering and obnoxious (witness “Nacho Libre” and “The Holiday”) or charming and quirky (“Be Kind Rewind,” “School of Rock”).

So how is Mr. Black’s vocal performance as the titular character in DreamWorks’ new, computer-animated “Kung Fu Panda”? Well, to be honest, it far surpasses bearable (wink, wink). In fact, the role is a pretty perfect fit for the star - which is not to say the movie is perfect, but we’ll leave that discussion for later.

Like the Tenacious D frontman himself, Po the panda is a slightly klutzy, roly-poly dreamer with a certain childlike sweetness and innocence about him. His father - oddly enough, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong) - is grooming him to take over the family noodle shop in a Chinese village, but Po’s thoughts are forever turning to kung fu.

The panda knows he’s uncoordinated and unconditioned. Yet he clings tightly to his dream of being a masterful martial artist like his idols, the Furious Five (cleverly fashioned after various kung-fu styles): There’s Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen, who gets some of the film’s juiciest one-liners), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

When a fluke causes a village elder to tag Po as the prophesied Dragon Warrior over the five famous disciples, the panda gets a shot at making his fantasy a reality. The trouble is, he’ll also have to defend the town against the most formidable of enemies: Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a mighty snow leopard that exacted a frightening revenge years back after he, himself, was overlooked for the Dragon Warrior position.

Mr. Black easily conveys Po’s eagerness and silly, self-effacing manner, making the character likable and relatable yet still zany enough for the animated medium.

Unfortunately, the movie itself (brought to us by first-time helmers John Stevenson and Mark Osborne) doesn’t have enough zest or originality to make it stand out in the burgeoning computer-animated realm.

The plot is a standard-issue underdog tale with an athletic bent, and the jokes and characters have all, in essence, been done before. We recently saw, for instance, an analogous story, two of the same actors and a similarly shlubby starring role bundled together in last year’s only tolerable live-action film, “Balls of Fury.”

Some of the animation in “Kung Fu Panda” is admirable, particularly the lush Chinese landscapes and the superbly choreographed chopstick fight scene between Po and his red panda master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). However, parents should be advised that most of the film’s assault is literal, not metaphorical - in other words, caregivers who fear the real-life consequences of youngsters watching violent acts may want to wait for the next big family-friendly flick. Hopefully, it will be stronger in integrity and gentler in its presentation.

**

TITLE: “Kung Fu Panda”

RATING: PG (for martial-arts action sequences)

CREDITS: Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: www.kungfupanda.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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