Kung Fu Panda is refreshingly entertaining. Pixar has more or less owned feature-length animation for the past decade or so, critically speaking, with the animated films from Dreamworks catering more to children who will enjoy 80 minutes of silly gags and songs, as opposed to actual plot, and then move on. Such films can do well financially but have short shelf-lives; the characters are rarely developed enough to be memorable. And the pop-culture parodying and upturned fairytale of Shrek was novel at the time, but still, the story was never that touching and the characters of such films are ultimately forgetten.
I love animation as a medium but I haven't bothered seeing many non-Pixar CG movies lately. I thought Happy Feet was an abomination of plot-points presumably derived in corporate meetings (and a misguided use of motion-capture), and I've been in recovery. There's some great art, great character design, great animation, and amazing technical progressions in many films -- I like the square-edged illustrative whimsy of the Madagascar animals, for example -- but none of it can make up for limp storylines and the easy, cliched, pop culture jokes.
And now there is Kung Fu Panda. I was reticent before the positive reviews surfaced, because it's usually not a good sign when big-name voice actors are used to promote a movie -- as if anyone goes to a film to hear their favorite people -- but heck, I ditched work and went. Jack Black makes a pretty good panda after all, and I especially appreciate the moments when he is off script, inserting ongoing Blackisms ("bring the THUNDAH!").
Anyway, the story is nothing new. An unlikely hero is foretold in the scrolls and the forces of evil are inevitably encroaching, etc, etc. Luckily it's humorous enough, written well-enough, and actiony... enough, not to matter. It's also full of stunningly good animation. For me, that old wobbly turtle steals every scene. The way he shakes with age, and licks his lips and smiles just enough, is wonderful; it's a focused and subtle piece of animation, and I'd like to shake the hands of the guys and gals who handled that character. And the blobby, weighty panda, all flesh rather than skin, is far-removed from the old days when everything in computer animation looked like rigid plastic; both the animators and the R&D team behind them deserve large praise.
I really hope this marks an upward trend for Dreamworks-produced animation. There will inevitably be sequels, and I think they will inevitably be less impressive. But I do hope to be wrong.