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Kung Fu Panda Print E-mail
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
ImageFor 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.

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.

[Written by AVRev] [START]
"Kung Fu Panda" is presented on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc with a 1080p/AVC transfer.  The video transfer is flawless.  There is no way around it.  It cannot be praised high enough.  The colors are vibrant and leap off the screen.  The yellows, reds, and oranges are perfectly balanced.  The image source is pristine.  There is no banding, artifacting or compression.  And being all-digital, there is certainly no grain.  The details are strong.  Textures are readily apparent.  This is the best reference demo material that has been released in quite some time.

The audio presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and is as superlative as the video quality.  The dialogue is clear and crisp.  It is well balanced among the sound effects and music.  There is a wide range of dynamics, but never so much that the dialogue becomes inaudible at low listening levels.  The surround channels are very aggressive.  Discrete effects are well placed and panned.  The LFE channel adds the best details to punches and kicks.  The sonic fidelity is deep and enveloping.  By far one of the best Blu-ray audio transfers.

If the disc has a weakness, it is the bonus materials.  There are several extra features, just nothing that spectacular.  First there is an audio commentary with directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne.  It not a very informative track, but a pleasant listen.  Next, there is a plethora of featurettes.  "Meet the Cast" contains interviews with the voice talents.  "Pushing the Boundaries" explores the animation briefly.  "Conversation International: Help Save the Wild Pandas" is a PSA.  "Do You Kung Fu?" is an introduction to Kung Fu for viewers.  "Sound Design" explores the audio.  "Kung Fu Fighting Music Video" contains the feature song of the film.  "Learn the Panda Dance" is a how-to feature.  "How to Use Chopsticks" is instructional for kids.  "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" examines the symbols of the Chinese calendar.  "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" focuses on the character animals in the film.  "Mr. Ping's Noodle House" covers a chef making noodles.  "What Fighting Style Are You?" is a quiz that gives you your fighting style.

"Learn to Draw" is a favorite of DreamWorks bonus material inclusions.  This how-to teaches you how to draw the characters.  "Dumpling Shuffle" is an interactive game.  "Dragon Warrior Training Academy" is a second game.

DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox contains shorts from other DreamWorks films.  Finally there are theatrical previews.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the Animator's Corner.  This is a video commentary that contains much of the information from the audio commentary.  There is a Trivia Track that covers a lot of the same information in the other featurettes.  There is also a BD-Live section, which for the first time has featurettes to download.  Hopefully DreamWorks will place the five animated shorts that are only present with the DVD edition on the BD-Live section.

"Kung Fu Panda" is a great family film.  Kids will love the colors and adults with be entertained by Jack Black's humor.  Whether you like the move or not, the best is a must own due to the exquisite video and audio quality. [END]

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