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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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Kung Fu Panda: Paws of fury

"You must believe," we're told in Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks' entry in this summer's feature-animation sweepstakes. Just once I wish we'd be told that it wasn't absolutely necessary that we believe, certainly not in ourselves. But at least Kung Fu Panda is set in the mind-over-matter world of kung fu, where you can move mountains if you get your head in the right place. Jack Black, not known for his fierce mental discipline, does the voicing for Po, a weight-challenged panda bear who dreams of being a weight-challenged panda bear who also happens to be a kung-fu master. And the character's been modeled on Black's whole idol-worshiping, slacker-dude shtick. Just climbing up the steps of the Jade Palace is a test of Po's strength and endurance.

Those steps, by the way, are covered in moss that looks like it was rendered one microscopic brushstroke at a time, as do the tiles on the Jade Palace's roof. Kung Fu Panda is a triumph of art design, drawing on imaginary Chinese landscapes we've been admiring for centuries, from traditional paintings to modern martial-arts flicks. It's the marital-arts flicks that the story draws its inspiration from. Po, who'd sooner die than miss a meal, gets anointed the Dragon Warrior, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. It's therefore his job to take on Tai Lung (the darkly mellifluous Ian McShane), a snow leopard with powers the likes of which haven't been seen since Bruce Lee entered the dragon. But first Po must undergo one of those training regimens courtesy of Master Shifa, a Yoda-sized grouch gruffly voiced by Dustin Hoffman.

The training montage, which culminates in a showdown between Po and Master Shifa over a single dumpling, is a sheer delight, proving that, for Po, the Tao goes right through his stomach. The other action sequences, though officially stunning, are also a little dull, if only because the parties involved - including the Furious Five, each of whom was expecting to be named Dragon Warrior - have such seemingly limitless powers that it's hard to tell why some of them win and others lose. The action itself is a little quick on the draw, swirling faster than our eyes can keep up with. But Po does a nice job of slowing things down, his capacious gut arriving a few frames before the rest of him. I look forward to the sequel, Crouching Panda, Hidden Calories.

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