Every town needs an Oogway: the encouraging, wary village elder and wise turtle who, in DreamWorks' latest animated offering "Kung Fu Panda," observes this: "One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."
In the lush, colorful Valley of Peace, Jack Black's Po, a portly and lazy panda, is assured by his humble dad Ping (voiced wonderfully by James Hong) that "We are noodle folk; broth runneth through our veins!" and encouraged to take over the family business.
But Po has other ideas. Compelled by dreams of "awesomeness and attractiveness" and being a kung fu warrior, Po abandons his noodle cart to watch a Kung Fu tournament that will determine the "dragon warrior."
When Po literally tumbles into the tournament arena, he is met by "the Furious Five" Kung Fu masters: Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan), all of whom are less than thrilled by their accidental competitor. But, as Oogway (a soothing Randall Duk Kim) often reminds anyone who'll listen: "There are no accidents."
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In a twist, it is Po who ends up chosen as the warrior, and our cheerful yet unlikely hero wonders how that can be true when he has "no wings, no claws, and no venom." Still, he must take on their shared nemesis -- as voiced by a menacing Ian McShane -- Tai Lung, a ferocious snow leopard. Newly escaped from prison, Tai Lung is determined to take revenge, destroy the village and prove he is the real dragon warrior.
Dustin Hoffman is delightful as red-panda Shifu, a seen-it-all sage who trains the warriors. Po reveres Shifu. Shifu, on the other hand, is dubious of Po's abilities.
As Po, Black is pitch-perfect; Po's every line seems infused with a comforting combination of attitude and wily wide-eyed playfulness; his clumsy movements and facial expressions are hilarious.
And when he gets his kung fu groove, it's a sight to see. Replete with bowls, chopsticks, dumplings, ornate Oriental artworks and high jungle rope bridges, the training sequences are the most visually stunning and entertaining of the entire film.
While the movie's underlying can-do spirit and reassuring never-quit ethos are inspiring, some of the battles may nonetheless be too intense for very young children.
The heartwarming story gently reinforces the importance of family and honoring one's heritage: a welcome message in this age of selfishness and greedy armed adversaries. The fast-paced action and Po's transformation reaffirm the oft-dismissed notion that dreams -- no matter how fantastic or illusory -- are possible and essential.
Self-confidence is both prized and demanded. Or as Ping lovingly explains with deceptive simplicity: "To make something special, you just have to believe it's special."