Smart silliness is — or should be — the Holy Grail of kids’ movies. Slapstick involving animated critters with squeaky voices stops being inherently hilarious once you hit the age of 8 or so. But topical satire, parodies of Mike Ovitz and the like sail right over the heads of rugrats. One popular solution is to offer something for everyone wrapped in one shiny, computer-generated package: Bee Movie had plenty of physical comedy, but also jokes about Jewish identity and blow jobs.
That’s one way to keep parents from dozing off. Another is to tap into a vein of absurdity that anyone can appreciate, because it doesn’t depend on a knowledge of grown-up stuff. In classic children’s stories and folktales, humor comes from blithely subverting expectations. Take an example from this new DreamWorks animation directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson: the relationship between the titular bear and his dad, who happens to be a goose. Is portly Po (voiced by Jack Black) adopted? Is that why he dreams of kung fu fighting while his fluttery father aspires to nothing more kick-ass than serving up soup to hungry customers? (“We are noodle folk!” he enjoins his son. “Broth runs through our veins!”) We never find out, and it’s better that way. A tale set in a “Valley of Peace” where animals talk and praying mantises can qualify as martial-arts masters doesn’t really have to offer explanations for anything.
The movie’s title tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Kung Fu Panda: It’s goofy, it borrows the hero’s-journey structure of a kung fu flick, and it’s a good way for families to enjoy air-conditioning on a hot day. But the movie is better than its trailer — which showcased jokes about the panda’s girth — would suggest. Mainly that’s because the film’s humor arises from its own characters and situations, not from allusions to MySpace and Disney. The clichés of the genre are mocked, sure, but in a knowing and loving manner. And scenes in the mountaintop training center, where the night sky is spangled with an outrageous quantity of stars, have an epic beauty.
The plot is about as simple as it gets. In the Valley of Peace, every fighter wants to be the Dragon Warrior, a prophesized hero who alone gets to read a magical scroll of power. Ironically, the place doesn’t seem to need a savior until snow leopard Tai-Lung, the prized protégé of Master Shifu, learns he isn’t the chosen one and goes on a destructive rampage. Imprisoned alone in a cavernous prison with a thousand guards — yes, all guarding just him — Tai-Lung escapes, of course. But, in his inscrutable way, senior Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) doesn’t designate one of the Furious Five illustrious warriors as the valley’s defender — even though one of them, a tigress, purrs seductively in the voice of Angelina Jolie. Instead, his eye lights on the panda, a kung-fu fanboy who’s too busy eating to get to the dojo.
Do we know where this is going? Obviously. But the writers stick to what makes tall tales fun, and the actors have fun, too. Though Black is allowed to riff occasionally, he manages to stay in character. Dustin Hoffman lends comic irascibility to his Master, an über-cute goggle-eyed red panda. Voicing the villain, Ian McShane takes a character that recalls Anakin Skywalker from the botched Star Wars prequels and gives him actual menace and pathos.
The stylized creature animation isn’t for all tastes: It recalls those old Kellogg’s commercials with Tony the Tiger. But the action is fast and clever, and the silliness is infectious. In the opening scene, Po dreams about being a hero the way a 10-year-old might: “There is no charge for awesomeness or attractiveness,” he tells his adoring fans. There is a charge for Kung Fu Panda, but it takes what’s awesome about immaturity and runs with it.