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Kung Fu Panda (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 06 June 2008
For better and for worse, “Kung Fu Panda” is exactly the movie the trailers suggest it is, neither less nor (unfortunately) more. It’s lots of fun to watch, but for the most part, you won’t take much away with you. There’s nothing innovative about the CGI animation, nor about the story. A dork unexpectedly enlisted as a hero saves the day and makes some friends. Bob Hope based the middle half of his career on pretty much this storyline, and many another comic actor has taken a stab at it, too.

Of course, it’s also a pretty sure-fire formula if it’s handled by the right craftsmen. Furthermore, this kind of upbeat ending is often exactly what audiences want. The fun of it all is seeing how our dorky hero—here, a big fat panda named Po (voice of Jack Black)—gains confidence and skills, and defeats his opponent, winning the respect of all. Usually, he also wins the hand of the leading lady, but that’s not part of this story.

The movie is set in ancient China. After an interesting, anime-styled dream scene opening, we meet Po, working in the noodle shop of his father Mr. Ping (James Hong, very funny), a dedicated duck who keeps the secret of his special ingredient—Po is not ready for it yet. But Po is ready to be a kung fu hero—that was his dream (of glory) that opened the film. He thinks maybe now is his chance.

For up at the grand palace above the village in the Valley of Peace, at the end of a dauntingly long flight of stairs, kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a tough, firm little creature that might be a fox, is getting ready to try to select the Dragon Master, the greatest kung fu expert of all time (or something like that). His current pupils are the hero team known as the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). Serene, ancient turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), who is Shifu’s master, is the custodian of the Dragon Scroll, clenched in the jaws of a carved dragon; the scroll can be read only by the Dragon Master.

Some years before, Shifu had raised snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) to be the Dragon Master; he loved his adopted son, and so failed to see the darkness within this skilled warrior’s spirit. When he was not awarded the glorious title, Tai Lung turned on everyone, and is now the sole prisoner in a vast prison fortress manned by 1000 guards. And there are fears that Tai Lung might break free.
Po wants to watch the Dragon Master competition, but first he has to haul his fat ass (and the noodle cart) up that long flight of stairs. You know what will happen when he gets there: unexpectedly to all except the wise old Oogway, Po himself is chosen for Dragon Master training. This is to the consternation of the Furious Five and the disgust of Shifu who, nonetheless, sets out to try to try this black-and-white doofus in the ways of kung fu mastery. By the way, of course Tai Lung does escape…

Jack Black gives a spirited, comic reading of Po’s voice; he’s fun, but it’s also a case of being TOO right on in terms of casting; the result is that Po is occasionally on the brink of becoming tiresome. He never quite topples over, but debuting directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson wisely keep Po’s various mishaps and misjudgments brief and to the point. Meanwhile, Dustin Hoffman is simply terrific as the wise, impatient and skeptical Shifu; he uses a deeper, more gravelly voice instead of his own, lending strong characterization to a role that could have been a misfire. Aside from some of the action scenes, Hoffman is the best thing about “Kung Fu Panda.”

The Furious Five are well-done, too, with specific fighting styles for each character, apparently based on the style associated with each individual kind of animal. Angelina Jolie and Seth Rogan are particularly effective, but Jackie Chan’s monkey character has maybe ten words in the whole film. As Po’s goofy duck father, James Hong delivers a funny, fully realized vocal performance. Ian McShane is something of a disappointment as the fierce, muscular snow leopard Tai Lung; his voice lacks power, and this character is intended to be, if nothing else, immensely powerful.

The middle third of the movie is devoted to Shifu’s near-despairing attempt to train Po, who’s willing and boastful, but actually deeply insecure. But he does like to eat; when Shifu finally faces that unshakeable fact, he finds a way to train this lardbucket of a panda. (Who, incidentally, never eats bamboo.) The designs during this sequence occasionally pop into imaginative life, very non-traditional stuff which, unfortunately, the film quickly skips past.

The script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris) is reasonably adept at building a strong bond between Shifu and Po. And it also provides a poetic demise for one of the characters—he dissolves into a cloud of airborne peach blossoms petals. They also find a way to link noodles and kung fu. I would have liked a scene in which Shifu defends Po’s noodle-making father to his skeptical son, perhaps something about how making noodles can be as much of an admirable skill as kung fu. It would have effectively linked Po’s two father figures. But maybe in “Kung Fu Panda 2.”

The production design by Raymond Zibach, art director Tang Kheng Heng and their large team varies from uninteresting children’s books standard flat art, to majestic vistas and a vividly colorful palace, dotted with intense reds and greens. Chinese art was clearly an influence, but too often the images are overly simplified—the mountains in the distance, for example—though other scenes are richly rendered and impressive. The score by John Powell Hans Zimmer is much like the design: impressive at times, routine at others.

The animation is more cartoon-like than ever; it’s possible the movie would have been more effective had it been done in classical hand-drawn animation. Most of the characters are well-animated, but have little distinction in this regard. On the other hand, Master Oogway, the tortoise, is beautifully animated, rich with character and detail; I got a small thrill just watching him open his mouth, and that’s the truth. The climactic battle between Po and Tai Lung is over very quickly, with the martial arts action so fast paced that it’s sometimes hard to follow. But the “beauty spots” are beautiful—Oogway, those drifting petals, and a couple of scenes full of slowly-descending confetti.

“Kung Fu Panda” is fast-paced, funny and entertaining; it will probably be a substantial hit, but it does have its weaknesses that keep it from ascending to Pixar-like heights of CGI animation.

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