Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review: Kung Fu Panda

Starring (voices): Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross
Director: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Release Date: June 6, 2008
Running Time: 92 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation

A decade on from the release of Toy Story, the new car smell of the age of computer animated feature films is gone. Nowadays it is difficult to justify liking something simply because it looks good. I’m afraid that ship has sailed. No, now we assume the film will look great and so we look to the story to work in conjunction with the animation to make a great film. These days, our assumptions and expectations have been heightened by the success of so many computer animated feature films, but sadly there are few really great ones. But the good news is that it is time to clear a spot towards the top because we have a new member of that illustrious circle.

Kung Fu Panda is the story of Po (Jack Black), a gentle, lumbering beast of a panda who works for his father (who just happens to be a goose) in his noodle shop. He daydreams of kung fu but he is not what you would call a pillar of physical fitness. No, he is as clumsy as you imagine a panda bear would be at such a skillful art as kung fu. Or at waiting tables. Or at walking stairs, up or down. Po idolizes the Furious Five, a group of supremely skilled martial arts warriors trained by their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), so much so that he talks to their action figures in his bedroom window upon waking up each morning. When an ancient master has a vision of an imprisoned evil warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a former student of Shifu, escaping and returning malice to the Valley of Peace, he calls for a formal ceremony so he can determine who is the mightiest of warriors and name that one the Dragon Warrior.

Po heads to the ceremony, overwhelmed by the prospect of being able to see in the Furious Five in action and in person: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). He lumbers up an infinitely long flight of stairs to get to the stadium only to realize it has taken him so long the doors have closed, leaving him outside with no clear line of sight. As the ceremony unfolds inside and the Furious Five perform, he finally devises a plan to make it inside to see the action. Only he falls in from the sky just as Master Oogway chooses the Dragon Warrior. Who do you think he picked?

This much and the rest of the story is devoid of any real surprises from a narrative perspective, but the writing is not lazy either. It’s just pretty modest martial arts fare. So what makes the movie so good? I can’t really say it’s any one thing over another - the story is a perfect blend of action and humor. My only complaint is that the characters of the Furious Five weren’t as developed as the rest of the cast. It would have made the story longer and probably resulted in a loss of steam, but I would have liked to see more of them. And I know I just got through saying it doesn’t count but it is worth mentioning that the animation is really spectacular. DreamWorks Animation really stepped up their game from their previous films. Not only is it beautifully drawn and colorfully vibrant, the action scenes are extremely well choreographed. You can definitely tell a lot of care was put into making them as artistic as possible.

The more I think about it, the best part of the film is none of the things I mentioned - its more what this movie is not. The original idea for the film was to make it a parody and a spoof of martial arts movies. But co-director John Stevenson disliked the idea and decided instead to give the film an epic feel while blending in light comedy so it could stand tall beside the films he was modeling it after rather than making fun of them. Mission accomplished.

Now there’s your secret ingredient.

And there's the rub.

*** ½ out of ****

1 comment:

TheStir said...

I very much agree, and thought there should have been a lot more character development in the Furious Five. Although, I did think this movie was total "awesomeness".