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Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight
The streaming spinoff of the movie franchise featuring Jack Black brings familiar chop-socky fun and goofball humor, despite some cut-rate animation.
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The “Shrek” series outstayed its welcome by such a fair bit that it’s been 12 years since the last movie, and no one’s really missed it. (Though rumors of a fifth are out there.) Meanwhile, another animated franchise featuring a tubby protagonist is like the undead: you just can’t kill “Kung Fu Panda.”
Hmmm… Zombie Po. Someone should run with that.
It’s back again in a new Netflix series, “Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight,” running 11 episodes that debuts this week. It’s very much made for the 12-and-under set with short hits running about 24 minutes apiece where Po the Panda wanders ancient China on a quest with various sub-quests and encounters.
It’s lively, full of the chop-socky fun and goofball humor you’ve come to expect, with each episode operating as an easily digestible mini-adventure. It’s like Po wants to be Caine, the star of the old TV show “Kung Fu,” finding himself in new situations each outing.
If you’re tempted to snort at the film series being turned into a TV show, the boat’s already long of the dock on that one. There were previously series on both Nickelodeon and Amazon Prime Video, along with a holiday special and various short films. The butt-kicking bear long ago passed into maximum exposure mode.
At least Jack Black is back to provide the voice of Po, who’s defined by a combination of self-doubt and infectious exuberance. (I’m still waiting for someone to explain why Chris Evans was swapped in for Tim Allen on “Lightyear.”) Black is an all-in voice actor, giving Po lots of emotion and gleeful panache. Give the man credit for refusing to phone it in, even after so many screen iterations of this character.
Po became the Dragon Master, the greatest martial arts master in the land, despite being a less than graceful critter. As the story opens, complacency has set in and Po has become dazzled with the life of a celebrity: adoring fans, little dolls everywhere he goes, mobs demanding autographs, free meals and so on.
He’s even gotten a little flabby according to the narration, though I defy you to tell the difference.
He decides to go on a restful trek across China to see the sights, but practicaly destroys the first village he sets foot in. A pair of sibling weasels, Veruca Dumont (Della Saba) and her brother, Klaus (Chris Geere), are attempting to steal a green glowy gauntlet that is the village’s prized artifact. During the ensuing melee, Po dons the gauntlet — which looks more than a little like Thanos’ infinity mitten — and, unaware of its power, smashes the whole place to pieces.
The thieves make off with the gauntlet, except for just the thumb piece, which has enough magic juice left in it to at least point the way to the rest and thus set a trail for the story.
In his quest Po is joined by the Wandering Blade (Rita Ora), a British bear knight who is trying to track down the gauntlet and several related artifacts to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands and setting off the ol’ apocalypse that seems to be the fate in every creative piece of storytelling these days.
(Must it always be the end of the world? How about just a province or even a measley village?)
Both Po and Blade initially mistake each other for the enemy, so after a spirited throwdown and much convincing, they join forces. Ostensibly, Po is her page, hoping to eventually move up to squire and eventually add the title of knight. That’d be a help, as the P.O.’d emperor decrees that he’s no longer the Dragon Master.
She also carries an amazing sword, the Black Steel of the Equinox, which is a fantastic name even though it sounds like something a kid would make up.
Their adventures take them all over China with encounters with all sorts of factions and creatures, such as the red alligators staking out a river of lava and a monastary of porcupines who use ridiculously poles to hope from high spire to spire. They rescue/free a wayward monk who had been held prisoner for her transgressions against the order, further staining Po’s reputation across the land.
James Hong also returns as Po’s duck dad, cheerfully running his noodle shop despite whatever latest mayhem is pounding around him.
During the first episode I thought the animation looked very poor, with herky-jerky action I hadn’t seen in a feature film since about 2006. It did smooth out after a while, so it’s possible this was still temp imagery made available to critics before the final version was finished for broadcast. I’d like to think so.
It did improve considerably, though it’s still several levels below what we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Despite the intentionally cartoony creatures, the movies have been notable for their highly detailed backgrounds and details. I remember when hi-definition televisions were first rolling out and they had a demonstration of the original “Kung Fu Panda” during the death of Grand Master Oogway that had my jaw dropping, and my hand reaching for my wallet.
But cut-rate animation aside, “Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight” still carries the spirit of the movies, just now in a bite-size format that is well-suited to entertaining kids.