Po (voice of Jack Black) is a soft, sweet-natured cuddly panda. He works as a waiter in his father’s noodle shop but dreams of being a kung fu champion. He studies kung fu history and cherishes his action figures of the Furious Five, the country’s top martial arts masters: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). They are trained by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) under the guidance of the Master (Randall Duck Kim).
The great villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane, providing the obligatory deep voice and English accent), guarded by 1000 soldiers, breaks out of prison and the Master must select a new Dragon Warrior to defend the people. The whole town gathers to see which of the Furious Five it will be. In what appears to everyone — including Po — to be a mistake, the Master points to the panda as the chosen one. And it is up to Yoda, I mean Shifu, to train him.
The Furious Five are, well, furious. Like a group of middle school mean girls, they tell Po he does not belong. Shifu is frustrated and impatient, insisting that the panda cannot be trained. He does not have the grace or balance for martial arts.
The panda is part teddy bear, part Pillsbury Doughboy, part Cookie Monster, all soft, sweet, and cuddly. Like Santa, he has a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly, a long way from a lean, mean fighting machine. He is also unsure of himself, ashamed of his clumsiness. He is afraid to try for his dreams — afraid to upset the father he loves (Po never seems to notice they are of different species) and afraid he does not have the ability to do better. When he fails in training, he says dejectedly, “I probably sucked more than anyone in the history of kung fu…more than anyone in the history of sucking.” He admits to Shifu that he only stayed “because I thought if anyone could change me, make me not me, it was you.” But Po will learn that the source of his strength is what no one can teach him — his sincerity and humility. Po will find within himself the strength, focus, and resolve to face Tai Lung.
As wise and experienced as he is, Shifu has some lessons to learn as well. He has to find a whole new way of teaching — it turns out the way to a Dragon Warrior’s heart may be through his stomach. And he has to explore some regrets and mistakes from his past.
All of this is handled very lightly — the film spends more time on the pratfalls than on the brisk training montage and the fight sequences are well within the PG range. The sweet-natured lumbering bear with the big tummy trying to achieve the grace, discipline, and balance of kung fu gives the animators a lot of opportunities for offbeat variations, sight gags, and contrasts, a cartoon tradition going back as far as the ballet-dancing hippos in “Fantasia.” And the scroll-inspired landscapes and colors are spectacularly beautiful.
The fortune cookie-like “everyone is special” lessons of the film get a little murky, though, and parents will want to talk to children about alternatives to violence, safe participation in martial arts, and telling the truth. But the film’s unpretentious sweetness, the striking visuals and fresh settings, and strong voice characterizations by Black, Hoffman, Rogan, and Cross make this satisfying family entertainment.