I’ve been surprised (pleasantly) by two summer movies thus far. I’ve already written about and continually sing praises to Iron Man. On a whim, I recently went to see Kung Fu Panda with a couple of friends. It’s not that I had low expectations…I didn’t really have any at all. I just knew that it had maintained a sufficiently high rating on the tomameter since its release. Turns out, Kung Fu Panda was funny from start to finish with good animation, great voice acting, and the requisite spiritual/moral/life lessons that can apply to children and adults alike.

Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po (Jack Black), a young panda trapped in his father’s noodle restaurant. Though his father has high hopes for his son’s food service future, Po has aspirations to be a great Kung Fu master. Po knows all the legends by heart and can imitate some of the moves…those that work well with his overweight, bulky frame that is. Yet as luck would have it, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the resident kung fu master, holds a challenge in the village to elect a new master that will inevitably face the menacing Tai Lung (Ian McShane) who, it has been prophesied, will escape from his imprisonment.

Po has stiff training and competition ahead in the form of Kung Fu greats, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Yet what Po lacks in physical build, he more than makes up for in perseverance and heart. He garners a certain respect for kung fu that his more capable allies and adversaries do not. These intangibles, along with a bit of luck serve him well in his show down with Tai Lung at the end of the film.

Kung Fu Panda trots out a couple of well-worn messages, yet the cute, funny package of a food-loving, chubby, would-be martial artist panda somehow makes them fresh again. Like most animated films with an unassuming hero, we are told that we can achieve our dreams or be whatever we want to be with the requisite hard work. However, what might set Kung Fu Panda apart from its counterparts is the tension that it builds between effort and effortlessness in the attainment of these dreams or identities. Po’s greatest successes in both training and combat often come when he is not really trying at all, or is instead distracted by another desire, more often than not, food. Though Po does his best to become a Kung Fu master, there is also a sense that he exists in a flow as well, being lead to that goal just as much as he strives for it.

As an aside, Tai Lung’s imprisonment and Shifu’s (Dustin Hoffman), Po’s teacher, determination to keep him there brings up an interesting point. When Shifu tries to ensure that Tai Lung cannot possibly escape, his messenger becomes the very means by which Tai Lung manages to escape. In a bit of irony, this seems to suggest that, at times, our attempts to protect ourselves become the ways in which we hurt ourselves or further empower our enemies to do so.

Kung Fu Panda (92 mins) is rated PG for scenes of martial arts violence and is in theaters everywhere.