Over the last decade, the outpouring of Pixar-imitating CGI comedies about wacky mismatched animal pals (The Wild, Madagascar, Over The Hedge, Shark Tale, Surf's Up, Ice Age, Chicken Little, Open Season, etc.) has occasionally felt like the output of an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, all banging out more or less the same thing. But as in the famous thought experiment, the infinite typing monkeys may have finally produced their Hamlet, or at least as close to one as the genre will allow. Kung Fu Panda is yet another celebrity-voiced animal adventure, but it stands out from the crowd of similar films with its lightning wit and whirlwind brio.
Jack Black voices the eponymous character, a fat, gluttonous panda named Po, who labors joylessly in his father's noodle shop (his dad is a goose, for some reason) while obsessing over the world of kung fu. In particular, he's fascinated by five near-legendary current masters: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan), all of whom were trained by the humorless Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). When it comes time to choose a student to receive the secret teachings of the invincible Dragon Warrior, Shifu assumes one of his students will be selected, but instead, his master picks Po, to Po's gleeful wonder and everyone's else's horror. Making an awkward situation worse, the brutal killer Tai Lung (Deadwood's Ian McShane) wants to claim the Dragon Warrior teaching scroll for himself, and Po is expected to stop him.
The central premise is bare-bones basic, cribbed from kung-fu movies past and drawn in broad lines with outsized character types, starting with the five animal masters, who represent five animal kung-fu styles. But the entire film is one gleeful, smart-mouthed riff around such movies, and it packages wu-xia-level visual oohs and ahhs around the postmodern self-referentialism of a film that knows and loves its desired martial-arts-obsessed audience. Ditching all the usual CGI-film touchstones—the Shrek-esque visual puns, the pop-cultural references, the obligatory irritating pop-music hits—Kung Fu Panda goes for streamlined action and visual fireworks, from the gorgeous, over-the-top-absurd opening sequence to the vast depths of Tai Lung's prison, animated solely in striking blues and reds. It isn't a perfect ride—the action sometimes whizzes by too fast to follow, and the animation shortcuts, particularly in the cheap-looking crowd scenes, are noticeable. (Everyone but the principals are minor variations on the same three basic, ugly character models; it's a pretty boring animal world that contains only pigs, geese, and rabbits.) But it's hard to get a grip on any objections: The film's whiplash comic timing leaves little time for any thought except "Wow."