Poor Po the Panda. He dreams of glory as he works in his father's noodle shop. The glory Po seeks is that of a great kung fu master, but he (Jack Black) is clumsy and unfocused.
When it's time, however, to name the esteemed "dragon warrior" of the valley, Po may have a shot at wish fulfillment.
"Kung Fu Panda," now playing, is a fine DreamWorks animated feature on par with Disney and Pixar. "Panda," with perfect voice casting and bright, engaging visuals, tells the story of Po and how his desire to be a warrior affects the lives of all in the valley.
Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is the master of the dojo overlooking the valley, and his five students represent the ancient styles of kung fu. Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Snake (Lucy Lui) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) all train constantly in hopes of being named the dragon warrior. But Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is Shifu's master and the one to name the dragon warrior.
At the naming ceremony, Oogway selects … Po.
Shifu finds Po a disgrace to kung fu. Shifu respects his master but feels Oogway made a mistake. Oogway tells Shifu there are no mistakes. So, to prove Oogway wrong, Shifu makes it his cause to get Po to leave the dojo. He wants to send Po back to his father (James Hong) and the noodle shop where he belongs. What happens is funny: the more punishment that he puts on Po, the more Po sustains.
While this is taking place, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), imprisoned for his attempt to overthrow Shifu and Oogway's leadership, escapes and races to the valley for revenge. Tai Lung is himself a great warrior, greater than the five, and it is the dragon warrior's responsibility to stand and defeat Tai Lung. How can Po stand against one so strong?
"Kung Fu Panda" is a children's movie that has many mature themes. None of them involves what most "mature movies" do today. These themes are about family, faith and true greatness. One of the keys to the movie is the issue of Shifu's lack of belief, both in Oogway and in Po.
Shifu doesn't think Po is worthy. His doubt forms a roadblock to Po's potential, but faith, according to Oogway, will make all the difference and will unlock the door to what Po can become.
Shifu discovers that Po has a unique style of learning. The way Shifu taught others does not work with Po. A change of teaching style allows Po not only to learn, but excel. This speaks to those who may have unique ways of coming to understanding and knowledge, ways of learning beyond traditional lectures.
"Kung Fu Panda" presents a surprising kind of savior, which speaks well to the tradition of Jesus. Jesus, of course, was not the model Messiah for many. Nor is Po the savior that Shifu or the five thought would come. This sounds much like John the Baptist's question for Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?" Jesus could point to his mighty acts, but Po does not have these. All he has is Oogway's faith.
When Jesus went home to Nazareth, he spoke in the synagogue. The people there took offense, and Jesus performed no great acts. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at their disbelief, showing us once again how a lack of faith can hinder greatness.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of martial arts action.
Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Writers: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Cast: Po: Jack Black; Shifu: Dustin Hoffman; Tigress: Angelina Jolie; Crane: David Cross; Monkey: Jackie Chan; Snake: Lucy Liu; Mantis: Seth Rogen; Tai Lung: Ian McShane; Mr. Ping: James Hong.
The movie's official Web site is here.