Lest you surmise from my initial foray into summer blockbusters that I’m a snob, I offer the following shorter, cultural studies-free and, most importantly, positive review of Kung Fu Panda. Yes, you heard me right.

First off, Jack Black is terrific. True, it’s no stretch for Black to embody the slacker panda who dreams (literally) of being a kung fu warrior. But let’s give Hollywood credit for understanding what a star brings to the table and then capitalizing on those talents (see Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man for another example). Black has a way with phrases like “There is no charge for awesomeness,” so I never tired of his shtick. And his ability to capture the insecurity a fat panda might have in the midst of legends leads to a most satisfying, if predictable, finale.

But equally important to the movie’s success is the spectacularly beautiful animation. Unlike previous DreamWorks outings that often looked cheap or rushed (I’m talking about you, Shark Tale), Kung Fu Panda uses color in marvelous ways. The characters are distinctive and yet look like they’re cut from the same cloth, the action scenes are inventive without being showy, and the backgrounds are simply stunning. One involving a mountain prison had my jaw dropping in admiration. Best of all, though, are a couple dream sequences in which the CGI animation is dropped for a more traditional style that evokes sophisticated picture books. I could’ve watched those scenes all day.

Not everything works, of course. I’ve grown increasingly frustrated over how animated films rely on big celebrities rather than trained voiceover artists. I know, I just got done praising Jack Black, and now I’m complaining about Angelina Jolie et al. But Black knows how to use his voice. Jolie and Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan and Seth Rogen and, surprisingly, David Cross don’t seem to have a clue. And since they make up the Furious Five, the other animals aiming to be the Dragon Warrior, their scenes are much less interesting. Even Dustin Hoffman is hit and miss. I understand that Hollywood doesn’t think it can market a movie without overwhelming star power, but it’s a shame when that leads to a weak link in an otherwise entertaining flick.


If the trailer for The Happening had you thinking you might check it out this weekend, tell your brain to think again. It is one of the more ridiculous movies I’ll see all year, with risible dialogue, stilted acting, and a plot so retarded I kept thinking writer and director M. Night Shyamalan must be pulling my leg. Yeah, there’s a compelling sense of dread in the first few scenes when people just start committing suicide for no reason. But as we start to learn what might be causing all this, the movie quickly crumbles under its ludicrous story. I couldn’t possibly mention every fatuous plot hole, but my favorite is that on several occasions our heroes try to outrun the wind…and succeed. And this comes from someone who actually liked The Village and Lady in the Water.