One fateful day, word comes down from the Jade Palace that the legendary Dragon Warrior is to be selected. Po is there (just barely; there are a lot of steps, and he's a little out of shape) to see the excitement. Perhaps by accident, perhaps because it is his destiny, Po is chosen to be the Dragon Warrior by the revered Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Oogway is an ancient turtle who happens to have invented kung fu, so he knows a dragon from a handsaw - although not everyone is so sure abut Po.
Kung Fu Panda hews to tradition: kung fu movie tradition and animated movie tradition. On his hero's journey, the unskilled and unschooled Po must learn the ways of the kung fu warrior, and fast; the fearsome and ambitious Tai Lung (Ian McShane, one coldhearted snow leopard) is coming. And Po must dare (in spite of all the fat jokes) to be different, to go with the flow, to trust himself, to find his inner strength et cetera. Bottom line is: He's a big panda and he's got a big heart; and Black - normally a fairly rambunctious, oversized performer - brings unexpected sweetness to his characterization.
The grumbling and grousing is taken up by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), the prickly, grumpy red panda who is Po's grudging teacher. Shifu discovers that the way to Po's warrior heart is (not surprisingly) through his stomach. Shifu's other students, the Furious Five, are all skillful warriors; but Masters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Snake (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen) learn that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes, including fat pandas.
There are few surprises in Kung Fu Panda. Instead, the story is full of mostly gentle humor, Yoda-style faux Zen wisdom, useful life lessons and chopsocky fight scenes that, thanks to fine computer animation, really take flight. There's also a genuine sweetness to the story. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have dared to write a sincere and snark-free movie - one that embraces the storytelling traditions and conventions of martial arts movies and animated films instead of mocking them. That's not to say that Po and company don't get their noggins bonked with comedic regularity. Master Shifu's dojo is a school of hard knocks, big bounces and belly flops.
The story is charming and so is the animation, which nicely evokes ancient China and has the luminosity, transparency and fluidity of a watercolor painting. Computer animation has advanced so much that lousy animation is the exception rather than the rule nowadays. Kung Fu Panda features lovely and lively animation, mixing photorealistic details with stylized flourishes. The action scenes are fast-moving and imaginative, and make creative use of the different ways that the characters, from monkey to mantis, move. Fans of martial arts films will recognize Monkey, Crane, Mantis, Tiger and Snake as familiar, deadly kung fu styles in the movieverse; we can now add the gentler but still highly effective Tubby Panda style to the arsenal.