Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend. He roamed the land searching for opponents to test his kung fu skills on, and did not lack for rivals wherever he went, taking on one, two, five, hundreds of fighters all at once and defeating every single enemy - he was the Kung Fu Panda and he was invincible. Oh, wait a minute, he was actually Po (voiced by Jack Black), and he worked in his dad's noodle shop, but he dreamed of being that terrific combatant every day, even if it seemed far outwith his grasp...
Patently created with the Chinese market in mind, which being the most populous nation in the world would prove very lucrative to Dreamworks should this become a hit there, here was one of the family animations produced as a rival to the Pixar behemoth. While it did very well, the sense of it having a set of buttons to press, a selection of notes to hit so that they could robotically elicit the correct emotions in the audience, was never far away, which might explain why Kung Fu Panda did not quite capture the heart as much as their competition, no matter how much work had gone into designing it.
All the requisite parts of the template were there: the easy targets for laughter, the celebrity voices, the serious bit where you're meant to have learned a valuable life lesson, but such was the straitjacket of the perceived way to approach these things that by now there was a mechanical quality to much of it. Black was a game fellow, and as a character Po was ideal for him, but that was no wonder when it felt as if so much effort had gone into giving him as little leeway outside of his persona as possible that not a lot was spontaneous. Yes, that was difficult to achieve when there were so many people slaving away to entertain with such precision, but this ended up flat.
The plot saw Po get the chance to follow his dream (because you have to follow your dream, kids) when he gatecrashes a ceremony to choose the new kung fu master, which the tortoise leader (Randall Duk Kim) decides apparently arbritarily should be him. This is hard to believe, especially as the older kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) wanted one of his expert fighting team of five highly skilled animals to be allowed to read the sacred scroll and blah blah blah. This would have been a lot funnier if Po had remained a terrible choice right to the end of the movie, but then that would have been far too unpredictable.
The whole thing played it relentlessly safe, and while it looked attractive, there wasn't much to set the pulse racing as all those martial arts movies it emulated had done, not even with Jackie Chan included in the cast for frankly perfunctory voicing of a monkey (a step in the right direction would have been to have him voice the panda). There was a villain, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a leopard who escapes from a maximum security stockade to survive as a soldier of fortune - sorry, wrong film, he actually wants to read the sacred scroll, and when you find out what is written on it you may be less reminded of any arcane wisdom and more of the sort of thing written inside fortune cookies. Lots of action followed, all expertly fashioned but you'd be surprised if the opposite had been true, as if there was one thing Kung Fu Panda counted on was that there were no real surprises here. It was nice enough, but corporate bland. Music by John Powell and Hans Zimmer.