Whatever else may be said of Kung Fu Panda, I know this much is true: it is by far the most visually appealing film yet released by DreamWorks Animation. They're certainly not in the same league as the masters of the universe over at Pixar, but they've never been closer; but maybe at about the level of Pixar four years ago, and a good time that was indeed. This film looks great, with fun character design and amazing background work; the only problem is the eyes. I do wonder about DreamWorks's eyes, with their look of shiny plastic orbs floating about the characters' faces. Can't have everything, I guess, and Kung Fu Panda is otherwise a great success: wonderful lighting effects, beautiful scenery.

Yeah, right, there's a movie attached to all that animation, and it's a movie that isn't too bad, truth be told. It's not great, but it's a sight better than I had expected it to be, for a movie whose single, solitary raison d'être is: "Man, wouldn't it be funny if Jack Black were a panda?" For indeed, that is the plot of the movie: Black voices Po, a panda who lives in the Peaceful Valley and works at the noodle shop run by his father, a goose named Ping (James Hong), even though he'd much rather be a kung fu master. This being a movie, and not a documentary about the travails of anthropomorphic Chinese animals, Po gets his chance when the dreaded snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes his inescapable prison, and the kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) must train the chosen Dragon Warrior to save the valley, and it just so happens that Po is that chosen one, though neither Shifu nor his students - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) - are terribly excited about the idea.

It is said that Kung Fu Panda lacks the numbing pop culture references that tend to date and cheapen the DreamWorks films, and insofar as there are no moments when a character quotes a TV show at another, nor any moments where the whole cast starts dancing to Green Day, this is true. But in the larger sense, the whole movie is conceptually a giant pop culture reference, an animated Jack Black martial arts movie. Black isn't Po's voice because the filmmakers decided that he would be the right choice for the part after much consideration; it's because Po is a typical Black character from the ground up. The good news, then, is that Kung Fu Panda is easily the best Jack Black film since School of Rock, at least for those of us who freely use phrases like "a good Jack Black vehicle".

In fact, it seems easy to argue that the film's best moments are those which are the most Blackian, especially its brilliant opening scene - and it's always a bit of a pity when a film peaks in its first scene - animated like paper cut-outs, halfway between anime and South Park, in which Po dreams of being a great warrior, and Black gets to deliver characteristic lines such as "they were blinded by his awesomeness" with great relish. The balance between these moments and more typical kids' movie pablum is unfortunately tilted a bit far towards pablum, more as the story proceeds, but its best moments are fantastic, where its worst moments are nothing worse than uninteresting and anonymous.

Generally, those parts of the film that aren't Black aren't all that successful - not successful at all, really. Like every other DreamWorks animated feature, the celebrity voices are as much a distraction and a liability as they are inspired casting: Hoffman, McShane, Cross and Rogen are the chief distractions, in roughly that order; Hong is distracting only as much as it's dispiriting that he is apparently the only Chinese-American actor that most Hollywood casting agents have ever heard of.

As a kung fu movie, there's not a whole lot to love about it. The action sequences, though invariably pretty, are all far too manic to keep track of (I almost got dizzy at one point, with all the chaotic spinning camera movements), except for the irritatingly common moments when slow-motion is employed; sometimes for comic effect, and oftener for "comic effect." That's actually a significant flaw: the film's best humor is all dialogue-driven, and whenever it tries for slapstick, it never quite makes it all the way. Rather, it makes it just far enough to past muster as a children's movie, but it's a touch insulting to children to claim that they can't enjoy sophisticated slapstick.

On the whole, though, it's legitimately funny, and not nearly as disposable as I had anticipated. It's a rare thing for a gigantic marketing blanket to hide an actual, worthwhile movie, but that's what we have here: Kung Fu Panda is a lot of fun in its own, unchallenging way. There are many worse ways to pass the time on a summer afternoon - indeed, the more useful question is if, right now, there's really anything that's unmistakably better. Welcome to the side of the angels, DreamWorks Animation. You've done yourself proud.

Reviews in this series
Kung Fu Panda (Osborne & Stevenson, 2008)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Yuh, 2011)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Yuh & Carloni, 2016)