If you're looking for this year's animated classic, a feature that will measure up to last year's “Ratatouille” (“...Best film of 2007!” - D. Hill, Franklin Journal), you should check out “Kung Fu Panda,” which is a stupid-sounding title for a surprisingly endearing movie. It's not “Ratatouille,” but it'll do till the next “Ratatouille” gets here.
    Although it will take some doing for anyone to equal the adventures of the superstar rat chef, “Kung Fu Panda” offers some of the same lessons about perseverance and self-esteem, and also several key scenes in which professional cooking plays an important part.
    Because, you see, Po is a pudgy panda who works in his father's noodle restaurant in the Peaceful Valley in ancient China. Po's father, Mr. Ping (“We are noodle folk! Broth runs through our veins!”), is a goose, which works because this is a fairy tale. It's also a running joke – Mr. Ping keeps wanting to tell Po a secret, and we keep thinking he'll tell the panda he's adopted. But no, it's another secret entirely, and they remain firmly father and son.
    Unfortunately, instead of having the Noodle Dream, Po (voiced by an ingratiatingly self-effacing Jack Black) fantasizes about being a great kung fu warrior, and idolizes the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The Five train at the local mountain-top monastery with Master Shifu, who is possibly a small fox and who looks like Yoda, but thankfully (because it's Dustin Hoffman) does not talk like Yoda.
    When the monastery's abbot, the tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has a premonition that the brutal snow-leopard warrior Tai Lung will escape from prison and return to menace the Valley of Peace, he dispatches a messenger (another goose!) to tell the thousand rhinoceros guards to beef up security. He then announces a ceremony to choose the Dragon Warrior who will defend the valley.
    I don't need to tell you that, by a set of curious chances, Po the Panda ends up being chosen as the Dragon Warrior, and spends a long and grueling sequence trying to persuade himself, his trainer, and his idols that he's up to it. (The way he slices radishes enters into the training.)
    Does he confront Tai Lung? Does he defeat him? What do YOU think?
    That's a no-brainer, because this narrative proceeds in the straight line of the simplest of nursery stories, with no deviation from the dramatic arc (can a dramatic arc be a straight line?), and with all the familiar details (I almost wrote clichés) firmly in place.
    At the screening I went to, a four-year-old who was having no trouble following the story kept yelling “THAT WAS FUNNY!” It didn't bother me, because the kid was right. The humor is a great part of the movie's charm, because there's enough slapstick for the little kids and enough wit for the grownups.
    And some odd quotations – there's a frame where we look deep into Tai Lung's eyes, and I gasped, because looking out at us was Jean Marais as the beast in Cocteau's 1946 “La Belle et la bête.” Go see it and tell me if I'm wrong. I think it's an hommage. Or maybe a theft.
    The other thing that will fascinate kids and enchant their parents is the whole look of the film. From “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” up through “Hero” we've become increasingly ravished by the sensuous beauty of the art direction in live-action Chinese martial arts films. “Kung Fu Panda” translates the look, in its own way, to DreamWorks' computerized animation. Raymond Zibach, the production designer, has taken the Chinese landscape, which in real life often looks just like a scroll-painting, and stretched and exaggerated it only slightly to fit the fairy-tale proportions. And he's boosted the intensity of the colors to match the cartoon quality, but it also comes close to the vibrancy of contemporary Chinese painting, of which we've been fortunate to have some local exhibits.
    Just as Pixar animation has developed a recognizable style, the DreamWorks animation is unmistakable. Remember the cute forest creatures in the “Shrek” movies? They're back, as the villagers of the Peaceful Valley, and they're adorable. They have the same slightly angular silhouettes, but the DreamWorks animators are getting better and better at giving them rounded, three-dimensional contours.
    (And you might not mention to your own four-year-old that the villagers are chiefly pigs, rabbits and waterfowl, which in any era of Chinese history would end up in Mr. Ping's noodle broth, along with some ginger root and scallions and star anise.)
    Some people have questioned the violence in “Kung Fu Panda.” The training and combat scenes are indeed very exciting, and may make little kids want to whirl and fly and kick and punch. My thought is that it's a cartoon, for crying out loud. I grew up on Looney Tunes and I didn't turn into a psychopath, because at a very early age my mom explained to me the difference between Elmer Fudd's shotgun and the real thing. I assume you're doing the same with your kids.
    By the way, the closing credits are done with beautiful artwork throughout, and you might as well sit there and watch them, because the movie isn't over until the very, VERY end. I always stay just so you'll know.