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           Jack Black might just be the greatest hype-man in Hollywood.  Tell him to hype a movie, he’ll make it seem like the greatest movie ever.  Tell him to hype a product, he’ll make everyone want to buy it.  But Jack Black is best at hyping himself.  He has made a career out of telling the world how awesome he is.  He does that job awesomely.  Which makes him awesome.  He doesn’t need to back up his claims of awesomeness, he is awesome enough just making the claims. 

Black’s new animated movie “Kung Fu Panda” makes decent use of his hyping skills.  He hypes kung-fu weapons, artifacts, stories, superstars, and of course, himself.  It’s a good thing Jack Black is there to tell us how awesome all these things are.  Because they don’t seem awesome from what we see of them.  The weapons aren’t terribly useful in combat, the other fighters aren’t as impressive as they should be, and Black is so incompetent he gets beaten up by an inflatable practice dummy.  But at least Black’s failure is important to the storyline.

Black is the voice of Po, a panda who we know either does kung fu or will learn kung fu in the course of the movie.  “Kung Fu Panda” takes the latter path.  As the movie starts out, Po idolizes the superstars of the local kung-fu temple.  But he seems to be doomed to a life of cooking noodles.  Through a series of “accidents” (although the Temple Master insists there are no accidents), Po is appointed the Dragon Warrior.  The Dragon Warrior is the kung fu superstar entrusted with the greatest secret in all kung fu.  He is also tasked with protecting the temple and the local village.  Po needs to get really good really fast, because evil leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from prison and is heading to the temple to steal the secret for himself. 

The Assistant Temple Master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), feels the Temple Master made a mistake.  He agrees to help Po in his training, but doesn’t take the job very seriously.  He mostly tries to overwhelm Po and get him to quit.  Po, meanwhile, is plenty overwhelmed without Shifu’s help.  The other stars of the temple only make things worse.  Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is particularly annoyed since she believes the Temple Master meant to choose her as the Dragon Warrior.  But no matter how much hardship and ostracism he faces, Po perseveres.  The film needs a message to make parents feel comfortable taking their kids to a kung fu movie.  That message may as well be perseverance. 

Even with the perseverance message, parents of young kids might want to think twice about “Kung Fu Panda”.  The film is more violent than it needs to be.  There’s kung fu violence as well as some gags inspired by Looney Toons.  A lot of it involves impact to the head and spine, which the movie downplays.  Characters are often paralyzed as a result of pressure-point attacks.  Po tries acupuncture, which also leaves him temporarily paralyzed.  There is one particularly mean-spirited scene where poor Po is trapped on a training course that is much too advanced for his skill level.  The scene is treated like a fish-out-of-water gag, but it’s still unpleasant to see the other characters watch and giggle as Po suffers nasty burns. 

“Kung Fu Panda” makes too many mistakes.  None of the other kung fu superstars (Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Viper, Mantis) have much personality to them.  The voice casting is odd (Dustin Hoffman as China’s greatest kung fu teacher?).  The fight scenes are flat (although there is a good extended sequence where Po and Chifu fight over dumplings).  There’s the problem with violence.  And Jack Black, great as he is, is used wrongly.  He spends half the movie worried about his inferiority.  The movie should have let him be a shameless self-promoter most of the time and learn humility at the last minute.  Using Black’s gift of hype correctly would have made “Kung Fu Panda” much more awesome.

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