People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
  DVD Review: Kung Fu Panda

I love animation, and have since I was a kid (kids loving animation is not unusual; I just didn’t grow out of it). One thing I did grow out of was the more kiddie-centric aspects of animation – like any good geek, I bristle at the suggestion that animation is for kids – and I’ve had to turn to Japanese anime and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows like The Venture Brothers and Metalocalypse. But ever since I was little, computer animation in particularly has fascinated me (I loved Tron and Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ video), and as that’s replacMere high shelves cannot stop the mighty Poed traditional cel animation as the standard for theatrical animated films, many of my friends has heard me grumbling that I’m eagerly awaiting Hollywood to stumble across the fact that computer animation can actually be used for something other than children’s movies about celebrity-voiced animals. So when I started seeing trailers for Kung Fu Panda, I groaned; it just looked like more of the same. I don’t bother with the kiddie animated movies, not since I suffered through the first Shrek in theatres and swore never again (though as a comic book geek, I rather unsurprisingly worship Pixar’s The Incredibles). So I was pretty surprised at how thoroughly entertaining Kung Fu Panda is.

The story follows Po (voiced by Jack Black), a food-loving panda who works at a noodle stand in ancient China where his (presumably adoptive) father, a duck, is pushing him into taking up the family business. But Po dreams of being a kung fu hero like his idols, the Furious Five. When their enlightened master decides it’s time to find the prophesied Dragon Warrior, Po is the one he chooses – much to his idols’ dismay. They’ve been training for years to become the perfect fighting machines, only to have their places usurped by a fat, bumbling fanboy with no kung fu skills. Further complicating matters is the return of Tai Lung, the former prize student of the Furious Five’s master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who believes he should be the Dragon Warrior, and is willing to take the prized Dragon Scroll by force.

The plot of Kung Fu Panda is by no means original, borrowing liberally from Star Wars as well as tons of old-school kung fu movies. But that’s actually part of the movie’s charm, and really, kids movies are not the place to look for groundbreaking stories. Kung Fu Panda does what it does really well, managing to be funny without resorting to fart jokes like Shrek and packaging a nice little morality tale about believing in yourself without getting too preachy or sappy about it. On top of all thisPo and Shifu training the movie’s action scenes are legitimately fun and cool, particularly the sequence where Tai Lung breaks out of the prison he’s been locked in for 20 years. The filmmakers behind Kung Fu Panda clearly get and appreciate classic kung fu movies, with co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne even mentioning The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in the commentary as one of the inspirations for the training sequence. They also mention their goal was to push the boundaries of action in a family-friendly animated film, and they pulled it off with gusto. Kung Fu Panda perfectly marries martial arts action with classic Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons.

The cast is also great. (Listening to Dustin Hoffman seriously talk about what it takes to master kung fu is worth the price of admission alone.) Like a lot of people, I used to think Jack Black was pretty awesome, until, like a lot of people, I got tired of his shtick and now he gets on my nerves, so I had low expectations for him going in. But maybe it’s the fact that it’s just his voice here and not his face, maybe it’s the fact that Po is actually a character and not a collection of tics and nonsensical phrases (his Homer Simpson-esque love of food isn't all that origTai Lung kicking assinal, but then again it’s not like The Simpsons invented that whole thing either). Black was actually one of the things I enjoyed the most about Kung Fu Panda, with several of the jokes working almost entirely because of his readings. The Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Crane (David Cross) – are also a high point, but unfortunately the celebrities they lined up to voice them don’t get a whole lot to do (a fact acknowledged – and lamented – by Stevenson and Osborne on the commentary). But the real standout is Ian McShane as Tai Lung. McShane manages to inject the film’s villain with a ferocity and scary intelligence reminiscent of his mind-blowing work as Al Swearengen on Deadwood, and the whole movie kicks into a higher gear any time Tai Lung is onscreen.

As a fan of more grown-up animation, I’ve been hoping that the success of the excellent Beowulf would make Hollywood realize that there are audiences old enough to shave that enjoy animated films as well. I’m not sure how that's going to work out (though I have high hopes of Pixar’s rumoured adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ cult sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars), but in the meantime, I can handle more talking-animal animated movies if they’re as good as Kung Fu Panda.



The Kung Fu Panda DVD has quite a few extras on it, but a lot of them are activities and games for young viewers. The more substantive among them include a nice look at the history of kung fu as well as the animal-themed fighting styles seen in the movie. There’s also the aforementioned commentary from directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, which is kind of interesting, if a little dry. I don’t imagine kids will be all that interested in it.

Kung Fu Panda is available individually and packaged with a direct-to-DVD companion piece (it’s sort of equal parts sequel and prequel) called Secrets of the Furious Five. The main feature runs about a half-hour, anThe Furious Five in a less-than-furious momentd tells the origin stories of each of the Furious Five in the stylized, 2D animation style seen in the main movie’s very cool opening sequence (it reminded me more than a little of Genndy Tartakovsky's excellent series Samurai Jack). Unfortunately, only David Cross reprises his role from the movie, but Secrets of the Furious Five mostly follows the characters in their youth, so it’s not really that noticeable (though Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee, fills in for his dad as Monkey). There’s a handful of extras on the Furious Five DVD, but they’re exclusively for kiddies. Overall Kung Fu Panda is a solid DVD package for a fun little flick kids will love.

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