The massive success of Shrek turned out to be a double-edged sword for DreamWorks Animation. The giant box-office revenues created by the big green ogre gave the young company a familiar face to market, and Jeffrey Katzenberg his first mega-hit after his ugly split from Disney. However, Shrek proved to be something of a creative liability. Instead of focusing on storytelling, the studio often attempted to recreate Shrek's massive success by stuffing their movies full of pop-culture references. Shark Tale, Madagascar, and Over the Hedge all sacrificed story in favor of a self-referential pop-culture knowingness, even when -- in the case of the last two -- the story was strong enough to work without relying on those gimmicks. One got the sense that as far as quality went, DreamWorks would forever play second fiddle to Pixar.
Kung Fu Panda, however, just might the beginning of a new era. First-time feature directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have crafted a traditional story. This is not a send-up or spoof of chopsocky clichés, but rather a bona fide entry in the genre. Po (Jack Black) wants nothing more than to learn martial arts like his heroes, but worries he is destined to be nothing more than a noodle seller like his father. He undergoes training, learns to believe in himself, faces his most feared enemy, and along the way teaches his master (an excellent Dustin Hoffman) a valuable lesson. By staying focused first and foremost on the classic story progression, the filmmakers are able to fill the movie with the little details that make animated films so much fun to watch. Everything in Kung Fu Panda works, from elegant details like the patterns on the serving bowls to the ballet-and-slapstick-inspired fight choreography to the flawless supporting work from talents like Seth Rogen and David Cross. All the elements come through precisely because the film never insists on shoving them down the viewers' throats. This movie is confident.
Jack Black projects his personality with the intensity of a Broadway star, something that occasionally makes him seem too "big" for the silver screen. It's not that he overacts, it's simply that his stage presence can engulf everything around him. When, however, he trusts the material, he can modulate this potent talent. He wins the audience's goodwill in the first 60 seconds of Kung Fu Panda, thanks to a very funny monologue about the legend of the panda warrior, and at no point in the rest of the movie does he or anyone else do anything to detract from those feelings. Kung Fu Panda lives up to Howard Hawks' old adage that a successful movie is three good scenes and no bad ones.