CANNES, France — Fur might be a politically incorrect fashion statement on the red carpet at the world’s most-prestigious film festival. Not when you’re the star of a movie called “Kung Fu Panda,” though.
DreamWorks Animation, whose past Cannes entries include the first two “Shrek” flicks and “Over the Hedge,” put its adorable martial-arts hero alongside the festival’s highbrow cinema entries Thursday with the premiere of the action comedy whose voice cast includes Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman.
“Being an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks’ animation mastermind. “And it’s particularly unique when it’s a broad commercial movie as opposed to an art film. There’s tremendous, tremendous value to that.”
DreamWorks uses Cannes as a launch-point for its movies, through screenings and clever stunts to catch the fancy of hordes of reporters, photographers and camera crews.
Black, who joined “Shark Tale” co-stars Jolie and Will Smith for a ride in the Mediterranean aboard an inflatable shark at the 2004 festival, this time paraded on a pier among 40 people in giant panda suits the day before the movie’s Cannes premiere.
While Black hammed it up with some kung fu poses, he wisecracked that the incessant camera flashes could go a long way to solving the energy crunch.
“If you harnessed all that electricity, it would probably be enough to take a small unmanned ship to the moon and back,” Black said. “It’s got to be 1.21 gigawatts of light flashes. It’s just going to be sick. Do we really need that many pictures? Where are all those photos going?”
Black provides the voice of Po, a panda in ancient China who idolizes his country’s martial-arts heroes but is too slow and clumsy to emulate their moves, stuck instead toiling in his family’s noodle shop. A twist of fate lands Po under the tutelage of a revered kung fu master (Hoffman), who must train the klutzy panda to battle an evil snow leopard (Ian McShane) intent on marauding and vengeance.
Po’s allies include a tiger (Jolie), a viper (Lucy Liu) and a monkey (Jackie Chan), whose graceful martial-arts skills put the lumbering panda to shame.
“There’s a concept which everybody responds to, the idea of this sort of soft, cuddly thing having to do this extremely active, athletic thing,” said John Stevenson, who co-directed “Kung Fu Panda” with Mark Osborne.
“We saw the potential of this being the archetypal hero’s journey that has been done millions of times, but we could actually do the most extreme hero’s journey,” Osborne said. “Take the most unlikely guy and bring him all the way to being a hero.”
As cartoon heroes go, Katzenberg thinks Po can go toe-to-toe with the animation world’s box-office heavyweight, the irritable ogre Shrek.
“I do think that Po the panda is going to give Shrek a run for his money, because I think that Po in a very different way is without question the most lovable character we’ve ever created,” Katzenberg said. “Shrek’s an anti-hero hero. Po is an unlikely hero. He is more in tune with what we are ourselves. He actually has to find the hero within, and I think we all have a hero within us.
“So it’s just very relatable to find this kind of average guy who’s working in his dad’s noodle restaurant suddenly have an ambitious fantasy to be something great, only to learn that being the best version of yourself is greatness.”
“Kung Fu Panda” debuts in U.S. theaters June 6.