Po (voiced by Jack Black) dreams of martial-arts glory: defeating the legendary Furious Five kung fu masters in mortal combat. When he wakes, though, he’s just a doughy panda who works in the village noodle shop run by his father — who happens to be a goose, but never mind that for now. Po unaccountably is declared the region’s savior and put under the tutelage of the sage Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) — not to battle the Furious Five but to team with them to defeat a Voldemorty beast who’ll be breaking out of prison any day now. Taking as their source the same Hong Kong martial-arts films that inspired both Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the oaf-becomes-a-hero plot of Stephen Chow’s 2004 Kung Fu Hustle, directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne devised a master course in cunning visual art and satisfying entertainment: the best and ultimate DreamWorks feature.
If Pixar is the ring bearer of the classic Disney style and uplifting temperament, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation studio is an update of the zany Warner Bros. gestalt: zany, parodic, brimming with pop-culture references. Pixar films might aspire to (and achieve) universal art; DreamWorks reminds the movie industry that “animated feature” is just a fusty phrase for “cartoon.” There’s no question which studio is more influential. DreamWorks’ vaudeville vibe, first paraded in the Shrek series, directly infiltrated animated films from Ice Age to Despicable Me and plenty more. Panda seasons the Katzenberg recipe with a splendid kinetic elegance in the fight scenes — kung-furious panda-monium — and trumps it with the contemplative message that strength and discipline can’t be taught but instead must be discovered within. A wise heart matches the movie’s art.