June 9, 2008

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda

With Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks Animation may have the best CG animated film in their history. It is, at the very least, their best release since 2001's Shrek. Time and distance from my viewing, along with eventual multiple viewings, will allow easier placement within the pantheon of computer animated productions, but even at this early stage, the future looks bright. Kung Fu Panda seems to be a very serious attempt to bridge the gap between standard Dreamworks product and that of rival Pixar. This is not to say that all Dreamworks releases are bad, but you cannot deny the first rate quality that Pixar releases time after time. This is step in the right direction, and while it is not perfect, it is one heck of a fun movie.

At the center of our story is Po the Panda (Jack Black). Po is the lazy son of a noodle shop owner, and when he is not serving bowls of noodles, he is dreaming about becoming a kung fu master. He idolizes the towns heros, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross, and Mantis (Seth Rogen). The five study under Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

One day it is announced that a new Dragon Warrior is to be named, a warrior destined to receive the Dragon Scroll, which possesses the secret to unlimited power, and defend the village against the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a former student of Shifu (much like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga). Po hears about the event and heads off to witness the event. Once there, he is the one chosen as the new Dragon Warrior, much to the chagrin of Shifu and the Furious Five.

What follows is a journey of self-discovery as Po is forced to reach deep within himself to find the strength, the courage, yes, even the stomach, to fulfill his destiny. The journey proves to be a difficult one, as both student and teacher are forced to realize great truths about the world around them. It is a process filled with hardships, challenges, and for the audience, much comedy.

The story is simple, it covers ground that has been traveled many, many times over the years, so do not look here for anything original in the plot department. For the most part, do not look to Kung Fu Panda for anything original at all. This may sound like a bad thing, but it is not. While the story does not tread new waters, it is a solidly entertaining one that feels fresh and is told in such a way that you don't even think about it.

At its heart, Kung Fu Panda is a martial arts film in the tradition of old. There is the unlikely hero, the inevitable training sequences, the ultimate showdown with the bad guy, and everything is laced with strong action and comedy in the style of classic Jackie Chan films.

The screenplay, from Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is fast, witty, and smart. They avoid the traps of pop culture references and cheap jokes that have infected the Shrek series. Another thing that is admirable about the screenplay is that it is not a comedy, rather it is a coming of age story and the humor is born organically from the story. The one-liners and gags are not forced into the script. It is an approach that is reminiscent of Pixar's films, such as Ratatouille and The Incredibles. It is a good approach that allows for better stories to be told in a fashion that does not belittle the audience nor pander to the lowest common denominator. The humor is by no means highbrow, but it still works for all age groups.

The direction from Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, both making their feature animation debuts, is strong. Together with director of photography Yong Duk Jhun, they have created a film that has a wonderful color palette and is filled with great images and layouts. In short, the fulm looks great, and opens in a 2D style that looks very similar to Genndy Tarkovsky's Samurai Jack. It is an imaginative opening that helps transport the audience into this fantasy world.

Another key figure in the creation of the film is Rodolphe Guenoden, an animator and practitioner of the martial arts, who was charged with designing the numerous fights, adapting real world martial arts to the animated animal world. The action sequences work great, they recall classic martial arts films while taking advantage of the freedom that animation provides.

The final element that makes the movie work is the voice acting. Jack Black is the heart and soul of Kung Fu Panda. His timing and delivery as Po is fantastic, it is very easy to like the character and root for him along his journey. Dustin Hoffman is also very good as Shifu, while Ian McShane delivers some evil as Tai Lung. Overall, the entire voice cast turn in good work.

Bottomline. In the end, this film delivered something much better than I was expecting. I was hoping it would be good, I thought it would be good, but I did not expect it to surpass my expectations. It features a strong character arc, strong action, and some great animation. This is definitely worth seeing on the big screen whether you are a child, a grown up, an martial arts fan, or whatever.

Highly Recommended.


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