A month after being diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer at the age of 46, Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch gave an inspirational speech last year titled, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, a sort of self-requiem that has since dominated the Youtube circuit and inspired several spin-offs. The key to a fulfilling life, argued Pausch, is to accept that we have a limited time on Earth to make our most innocent fantasies into reality.
This hearty message, this embrace of life, is the spirit that drives the latest DreamWorks Animation vehicle, Kung Fu Panda. And, ultimately, it's this hearty message -- to embrace life before it's too late -- that makes the film so thought-provoking, vivacious and full of fun. Of course, the message alone isn't enough. And this one, wrapped in layers of humour and beautifully crafted, delivers the entire package. The result: A smash-hit and a feel-good summer blockbuster.
Po (Jack Black) is a giant panda, who dreams big. Literally. By night, he's a Kung Fu master, scouring the countryside to vanquish villains, aided along by the Furious Five, a band of China's greatest warriors. It's true that Po knows everything about Kung Fu: its history, its code, its tactics. By day, he's the overworked, unhappy son of a goose named Mr Ping, the valley's greatest noodle-maker. This makes Po a fourth generation noodleier, in fact, and as his father repeatedly reminds him, 'The broth flows in your veins.'
Alas, to Mr Ping's infinite chagrin, noodles are of secondary importance to poor Po; he'd rather eat than make them, which results in an oversized gut and a lack of motivation. What occupies his mind most is Kung Fu. But he just can't seem to act on it, and, with his father's encouragement, he's almost entirely buried his greatest dream under layers of self-loathing and disappointment.
Then, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), an aged tortoise and protector of the Valley of Peace, has a vision: the notorious Tai Lung (Ian McShan) will escape from the remote canyon Chorh-Gom, where, for the last 20 years, he's been imprisoned by 1,000 black rhinos.
Legend has it that only the mythical Dragon Warrior can defeat such evil as Tai Lung. The Dragon Warrior, it is said, will reveal himself in the Valley's time of need, inherit the great Dragon Scroll -- which has never before been read -- and inculcate its divine message before beating back Tai Lung's assault.
The red panda, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), China's greatest Kung Fu master, has taught the Furious Five, trained them from an early age, so that one of them might be worthy of the title, Dragon Warrior. After hearing Oogway's premonition, Shifu organises a tournament between the Five, so that each can showcase his or her skills, in hopes of earning the crown.
Po, like the rest of the Valley's residents, plans to attend the tournament, if only to catch a glimpse of his Kung Fu heroes. His father, on the other hand, has different ideas, and sends Po off with a noodle cart, so that he can rack up sales from the hungry spectators. A series of calamities ensues, ending with Po's unceremonious, highly distracting entrance into the fighting arena!
Jack Black, as Po, handles the transformation from hapless idiot to hardy hero with aplomb. The actor, best known for his blend of self-deprecation and slapstick, shines throughout, even without the benefit of performing his antics in the flesh.
The film moves at a brisk, light-hearted pace but packs a punch. Unfortunately, some of the more peripheral characters, like Angelina Jolie's Tigress, Lucy Liu's Viper and Jackie Chan's Monkey, get only superficial attention, and leaves one wondering whether the big names were really necessary.
Still, Hoffman, as Master Shifu, undertakes the film's secondary story line with skill. Shifu's an honest, well-learned, hard-working Master -- the best in China. But his perpetual unrest and insistence on cold logic in the face of fate's unassailable wall leaves him jaded and impotent. Not only that, he's continually running from a past he can't forget, of a fallen protégé who Shifu himself thought would one day become the Dragon Warrior. When he begins teaching Po in earnest, however, he rediscovers himself, and undergoes immensely personal journey to find contentment. Hoffman is masterful in this depiction.
In technical terms, the film is an absolute feast for the eyes and pleasure for the ears, again proving that, when on top of its game, no one beats DreamWorks in computer animation. After for some years failing to recapture the success of previous hits Antz and Shrek, DreamWorks can now breathe easy. The clouds of rubble, the slurp of noodles, the power of tears, all are breathtakingly captured in what still amounts to a children's film. Kudos to them.
That, of course, is the magic of a well-made animated film in general, and Kung Fu Panda in particular. It appeals to the child, to the dreamer, in each of us. As the Godfather himself, Walt Disney, was fond of saying: "If you can dream it, you can do it."
And indeed, Kung Fu Panda is a dream. Not only is it the year's top animated film thus far, it's the top Kung Fu offering as well, and an effort that will doubtless bring a smile to fans of both genres. Lord knows, it's the best film to star Jackie Chan in ages.
Do yourself a favour, and catch it in theatres, for the full experience. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Bring mom and dad. This one's got universal appeal.