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Kung Fu Panda

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is poppin' with fortune-cookie kernels, such as this one, offered to Po, the title character: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift - that's why it's called the present."

But despite the sage and sugary revelations and bits of Zen wisdom, one huge mystery looms over this super-fun animated comedy set in ancient China: How can a panda bear be the progeny of a duck?

Without explanation or elaboration, Po (the voice of Jack Black), is presented as the rolypoly, goofball son of one Mr. Ping (James Hong), a noodle-making mallard. Po mans the street cart (or is it

pandas

the street cart?) and helps his quacking dad serve lunch for the townsfolk, all the while fantasizing about chopping and socking his way through an army of ninjas. He may be a clumsy clown destined for a life of lo mein, but in his heart of hearts Po's a martial arts master.

If only the rest of the world saw him that way.

And then, in DreamWorks' spirited computer-animated follow-your-dream comedy, Po gets the chance to prove himself. In a seemingly fluky series of events - "seemingly," because, as kung fu guru Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) observes, "there are no accidents" - Po is chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy. And chosen to do battle against a demonic snow leopard, Tai Lung (Ian McShane).

Scripted by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson,

Kung Fu Panda

niftily combines a romping 'toon aesthetic with a visual grace and color palette culled from traditional Asian art. Cloud-shrouded mountain tops, gnarled trees in silhouette, stately temples, burnished skies - the film is elegant, artfully wrought.

At the same time, the physicality of the characters - from the portly Po to the acrobatic kung fu quintet known collectively as the Furious Five - is rendered in ping-ponging, gravity-defying Looney Tunes style.

And, thanks to a witty script and the recognizably goofy but absolutely earnest delivery of Black,

Kung Fu Panda

has a human soul, too. Black invests real emotion into his line readings, and real comedy too.

Along with Black and Hoffman, the A-listers that popped into a recording studio for

Kung Fu Panda

include Angelina Jolie (as Tigress, one of the Furious Five), and Jackie Chan (as Monkey). The other members of the Five - a group of crack kung fu-ers that reluctantly make way for Po - are voiced by David Cross (as Crane), Lucy Liu (as Viper) and Seth Rogen (as Mantis).

Kung Fu Panda

references underdog sports movies such as

Karate Kid

and martial arts epics such as

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

, and while its storyline might seem familiar (in fact,

very

familiar if you've seen the recent live-action Jackie Chan/Jet Li hit,

The Forbidden Kingdom

), there's enough invention and irreverence to make the film feel fresh.

Now, if only they'd explain about the duck.

Kung Fu Panda *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. With the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Ian McShane. Distributed by DreamWorks.

Running time:

1 hour, 28 mins.

Parent's guide:

PG (cartoon violence)

Playing at:

area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.