Fast as Lightning

by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & Y & lt;/span & ou might think that one computer-animated film looks just like the next, and to some extent there are a lot of similarities in what's being produced from today's CGI palette. But what separates the good movies from the average ones -- and this is a universal rule in animation, live-action, literature, you name it -- is whether or not it has heart.

We've seen much of the physical look of Kung Fu Panda before. (And no offense to the creative folks at DreamWorks, but Pixar still has the edge.) But there haven't been many films with as much heart as Kung Fu Panda.

Po (voice of Jack Black) is a lazy panda, idling away in China's Valley of Peace, dazzled by anything related to kung fu but seemingly destined to help out in his dad's noodle restaurant.

Astute viewers will note that Po's father is a goose (voice of James Hong), but only one casual reference is made about that incongruity -- which makes it pretty funny.

But forget about mixing species. Kung Fu Panda is about fighting with fists and feet, about fulfilling ancient prophecies, about keeping the peace in the Valley of Peace.

Yet even as festivities around the upcoming choice of the new Dragon Warrior -- odds are that it will be one of Master Shifu's (Dustin Hoffman) prize students, known collectively as the Furious Five -- are coming together, there's word that the muscular, athletic, and deadly leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is planning an escape from prison.

Truth be told, if it happens, it'll be one heck of an escape, what with his being the only prisoner in the massive jail that's manned by 1,000 guards. But of course he escapes in a dandy action sequence featuring cameras that fly through the air right along with the characters.

Back in the valley, however, most residents are unaware of any threat. Po regularly dreams of his fighting prowess, though reality proves him to be accident-prone and ridiculously out of shape. Yet he does yearn to someday do something, anything, that's big and important.

For now, though, he'll be content to watch the proceedings as the Dragon Warrior is named. In a classic case of wrong time-wrong place (peeking through a hole in a wall to see what's going on inside), a finger is pointed at Po, and before he can say, "Huh?" he's proclaimed Dragon Warrior, defender of the land, hero to all citizens. Huh?

He knows from the get-go that something's not right, as does exasperated Master Shifu, as do the Furious Five (Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross). But when in the Valley of Peace, you don't mess with destiny -- even if you're a ferocious creature like Tai Lung who thinks that he should have been named Dragon Warrior.

Amid lots of good slapstick and state-of-the-art CGI work, there's that heart. Master Shifu, frustrated, is trying to get Po to believe that he can defeat Tai Lung. There are no accidents, you see. Everything happens for a reason.

The kung fu fighting -- particularly between the Furious Five and Tai Lung -- can get rough-and-tumble, but most of it has a slight comic edge. And if that isn't enough to lighten things up, there are gags about acupuncture and gaining inner peace.

Everything leads, of course, to a big battle matching the grunting, growling leopard with the clumsy, overweight panda. Do you think that Po will eventually learn how to feel the universe? More important, do you think he'll ever manage to walk up a flight of steps without huffing and puffing? (Be sure to stay for the end credits.)


Rated PG

Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson.

Starring the vocal talents of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane