I feel it’s only right that I should warn you: I’ve got nothing against terrible movies. In fact, if you know how to look at just what’s playing in theaters right now, you can find a lot to love in a movie that tries something brand new and hits the wall with a pyrotechnic BANG ("Speed Racer"); or that is repetitive and boring but has a queasy conviction ("The Strangers"); or that is desperately shallow, but accoutered with panache ("Sex and the City"). As a critic, my one, true, sworn enemy is that which most deadens the human soul: mediocrity.
Back in 1977, when director Ridley Scott was pitching the project that would become "Alien," he told the microcephalic, knuckle-dragging suits at the studio, "It’s like "Jaws" – but in space!" Never underestimate the power and efficacy of an idea that can be boiled down to five words a three-year-old can understand. That’s the kind of movie that gets made. ("Alien" was great, by the way.) Now, imagine the dollar signs in Dreamworks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg’s eyes when he heard the magic, royal-treasury-opening words: "A panda – who can do kung fu!"
Which brings us to "Kung Fu Panda," opening today in Bloomington, and the subject of mediocrity. Will kids like the movie? Sure. They’ll watch the color and motion in the same way your or I might zone out while staring at our laundry tumbling in the drier. But will they get what they deserve? Will the film stoke their imaginations with the fantastic, delight and surprise them with fresh ideas? Not hardly. This is a movie like a Lubriderm-coated White Castle burger, designed to shoot through you without touching the sides.
Consider the fat, clumsy Panda’s lithe friend Snake, one of four easily-merchandised but wholly undeveloped animals gifted in the martial arts. What possibilities! How would a snake use its sinuous spine and low center of gravity to counter an opponent? A filmmaker with one scintilla of inspiration would have taken off with the physics and given us something to chew on. But in "Kung Fu Panda," Snake sails through the air, "Matrix"-like, hovering there, slapping opponents around with his tail. It’s embrassing.
While "Panda" isn’t as shot through with the unwanted pop culture references that often comprise the Dreamworks Animation style ("Shrek" and the truly intolerable "Shark Tale"), it’s just as littered with superfluous celebrity slumming in the voiceover department, as if star wattage will transfer like ju-ju pixie dust, hedging against the considerable financial investment being made. Will anyone notice or care that the fighting animals sound like Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and, of all people, Dustin Hoffman, the last of the big name actors to cash a check for two days’ work?
And those are the voices that work at all. Angelina Jolie’s voice is without timbre, and can in no way be emanating from the throat of a tiger (she did better recently, dubbing over her own animated body in "Beowulf"). Jack Black, who voices the panda, is an actor who is often funny, but who just as often gets old (for every "School of Rock," there is a "King Kong"). Without his popping eyes and facial contortions to distract from the nasal quality of his voice, listening to Po is like listening to the yappings of a nervous little dog.
So tell your kids to read a book, or go outside and play with a stick or something. Anything. But if the marketing spores have too fully flowered in their eager little developing brains, and they won’t stop begging you to take them, you might consider waiting in the lobby, withholding at least $7 from the men who are going to keep doing this to us as long as we let them.