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Pleasant surprise: 'Kung Fu Panda' is better than first expected

Earlier this year, I feared "Kung Fu Panda."

No, I wasn't terrified that some flabby panda was going to break into my home and beat the holy crap out of me (although who's to say that won't happen). Instead, I was afraid "Kung Fu Panda" was going to be nothing more than another "Shark Tale."

After all, it was a DreamWorks movie, it starred Jack Black in the lead role, and Angelina Jolie lent her voice to a supporting character. The only thing missing was Will Smith and a whole lot of water.

Fortunately, I was wrong. None of my fears came true, and Jack Black even managed to make a movie (I believe his first since King Kong) in which he doesn't sing or scat. Like "Horton Hears a Who," which starred the usually annoying Jim Carrey, "Kung Fu Panda" manages to minimize the aspects of a Jack Black that make him unbearable (no pun intended).

The film centers on Po, a panda living in a small village in China. Po dreams of being a kung fu warrior. One day, while visiting the temple in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Furious Five (comprising a tiger, a baboon, a viper, a crane and a mantis), he is chosen by the elder to be the Dragon Warrior. The skeptical master Shifu must find a way to train Po in order to defend the village against the evil Tai Lung.

The first thing I noticed about the film that really knocked my socks off was the animation. Over the years, DreamWorks has been playing second fiddle to Pixar by producing similar movies that never quite compare, animation-wise.

"Antz" was okay, until you saw "A Bug's Life." "Shrek" was cool, until you saw "Monsters Inc." "Shark Tale" looked decent, until you saw "Finding Nemo."

Without compromising the overall DreamWorks style, the animators were able to put together a rich, lavish film with sharp imagery. Like Pixar's "The Incredibles," "Kung Fu Panda" opens with a highly stylized but very retro look, then explodes into a realistic yet fun 3D environment.

The kung fu scenes are the best in the film, featuring bright colors and sweeping camera moves. These were exciting and also necessary to the story. I brought my kids to the screening, and they loved the film, so much so that they didn't squirm or even want to leave their seats.

The story is cute enough, and the voice cast works. Jack Black is toned down to fit the mood of Po's character. Dustin Hoffman presents a subdued yet grounded performance in Shifu. And the Furious Five (featuring Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogen) provide nice support without hogging the screen time.

I was prepared to hate this movie, mostly from what I considered to be some pretty lame commercials. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked it. By and large, these CGI films have been pretty well made over the years, with only a few stinkers.

And with "Indiana Jones" being the only thing close to a successful family film in recent weeks, "Kung Fu Panda" should carry a lot of weight.

Kevin Carr is an independent writer, journalist and filmmaker who lives in Columbus, Ohio.