He’s fat, he’s lazy, he’s an underachieving slob. But Po the Panda could just be the answer to the prayers of a martial-arts master in “Kung Fu Panda,” this summer’s animation blockbuster from Dreamworks, opening in Japan to precede the Beijing Olympics.

My guess is that it’s a ploy to have us all get in touch with our inner Asians; what with this movie and the excitement of the Games, in a week or two we’ll be waving chopsticks in the air in one big surge of solidarity. Forget the panda politics. Forget, in fact, any panda that can’t display a few kung-fu maneuvers after slurping bowl after bowl of noodles and unleashing a truly majestic belch.

Apparently, many under-15 theater-goers here will be convinced that “Kung Fu Panda” is a Japanese movie (enhanced by the fact that a famed boy’s pop group, Heisei Jump, is singing the Japan version theme song) — unaware that what they’ll be flocking to see is dubbed, and there’s an original, English one in which stellar Hollywood names like Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie do voice-overs.

Kung Fu Panda
Director Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Run Time 88 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens July 26, 2008

Not that they get to do much anyway, since this show belongs to the “flabby panda” all the way. He gets the lines, cracks the jokes and lets rip with the movie’s signature slogan “awesome!” every five minutes. Who better to play this panda — with a paunch Michael Moore would be proud to call his own — than Jack Black? At this point in his career, no man can play a motor-mouthed, golden-hearted fattie with such spot-on comedic excellence.

Po dreams of being a real kung-fu fighter, but given his girth and the fact that he’s a slacker nerd hanging around in a noodle shop owned by his father (James Hong), the odds of him ever becoming a furry version of Bruce Lee are extremely thin. Until the night Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the aging grand master (actually a turtle) at the kung-fu temple, dreams that a panda is destined to save their village from an invading snow leopard — a cool, suave dude called Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Oogway dispatches kung-fu expert Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a furry rodent, and an elite martial arts unit known as the Furious Five — consisting of Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) — to recruit Po. So far, so difficult.

Never having exercised in his life, Po needs about a thousand hours on the Stairmaster before he can hope to take on the vertigo-inducing steps leading to the temple, never mind mastering the steps that the Five are in the habit of demonstrating before morning tea.

Wheezing his way through the rigorous training menu drawn up by Shifu, but always scheming for a 15-minute break or a plate of dumplings, Po is a hopelessly unlikely candidate for the village savior. But Oogway assures Shifu that he “must have faith” and other achingly familiar animation movie rigmarole, as the story gathers momentum for a climatic martial-arts showdown between Tai Lung and Po that would satisfy the most demanding of action-movie choreographers. If some of Po’s moves seem a tiny bit lacking in grace, it’s due to the fact that the lovable bear — no matter the number of hours he’s made to practice or those miles of stairs — never loses that gut of his.

“Kung Fu Panda” is great viewing, not because of the story (if I were a kid and had to be told yet again by animated digital figures to hold on to my dreams and not lose faith, I’d barf in the aisle) or the action (admittedly awesome, but then what big-budget marital arts movie doesn’t have that?), but because the visuals are uncluttered and elegantly simple and the whole thing is refreshingly devoid of love interest: Po never morphs into a hero with six-pack abs who gets the girl in the end.

“Kung Fu Panda,” though made in Hollywood, seems to understand that such an ending would just not be Asian. A plate of dumplings as a reward for all the effort, yes. A cutie in a pastel kimono, no. Because effort is its own reward, right everyone?

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