Snarky irreverence will always have a place in cartoons, of course—to claim otherwise would be to invite an anvil on the head—but in the case of DreamWorks Animation, there's the frustrating sense that wise-ass is the only option they've got. As their distressingly megabucks back catalog of the Shrek series and Madagascar indicates, given the choice between a genuine emotional moment or a self-congratulatory pop-culture riff, they'll cue up "Margaritaville" every time.

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At first glance, the studio's latest summer blockbuster/merchandise delivery system Kung Fu Panda promises more of the same—or, given the prospect of a played-out martial-arts spoof voiced by such hipsters as Jack Black and David Cross, something even worse—and yet, surprisingly, it doesn't suck. Chalk it up to either a newfound maturity or management being asleep at the wheel, but, somehow, someway, it achieves a low-impact playfulness that actually feels kind of... charming.

Beginning with a way cool abstract blast of 2-D animation before settling into more conventional CGI, the film tells the tale of a buffoonish noodle peddler (Black) with the standard Disney dream of something greater. After stumbling his way into a fabled martial-arts competition, he becomes trained in the ways of chop-socky in order to defend his homeland from an evil former student. The story's cookie-cutter predictability may keep things from ever quite reaching Pixar's rarified air (although the unusually deep backstory between Dustin Hoffman's Yodaish sensei and Ian McShane's jilted villain comes surprisingly close), but there's the gratifying sense throughout that the makers have finally stumbled across an amiable formula that might actually be worth cultivating. Until, that is, a gawdawful hiphop remix of "Kung Fu Fighting" blares out over the end credits. Baby steps, guys, baby steps.