Pixar is where it is at for me animation-wise in Hollywood. Maybe that makes me a snob, but something about their films resonant on a level that the others can’t even begin to touch. Sure Shrek and Madagascar are funny, but besides the off-belly laugh, they are kind of shallow and hollow. With that said, I went to check out Dreamworks new foray into computer graphic cinema, Kung Fu Panda. Admittedly, I knew very little about this thing other than the fact that Jack Black and Angelina Jolie voiced characters. It could possibly be due to the fact that I don’t watch much tv, but I’ve seen sparse promotion at best until walking into the theatre and seeing a giant 3D panda in the lobby. On the whole, the film plays out much like you’d want a family/kid friendly picture to. We are given examples of friendship, belief in oneself, and humility—all life lessons we hope to inspire our youth with. With a good backbone such as that, along with some humorous bits and stunning action choreography, this panda definitely packs a punch doing his job: entertaining the audience right until the final frame.
Credit the producers for compiling a top-notch roster of vocal talent to enhance the somewhat ho-hum script. These types of movies are never very original, so it takes a bit of extra panache to really draw me in. Black is actually quite good in the role and Po the panda plays right into his schtick. When arriving at the hall of warriors, he goes to every artifact and does his thing, screaming his excitement at all the cool stuff like it’s his JB character from Tenacious D eying Jimi Hendrix’s first guitar. The Kung Fu arm mannerisms even recall his air guitar/rock n’ roll motions. Black is somewhat restrained and his manic energy is reigned in to be effective on the comedic and dramatic levels. This guy is, after all, our entrance into the story and the character we are supposed to relate to. An outcast and an original, we all can see a bit of ourselves, always dreaming but never taking the leap to achieve those goals. We watch his evolution and start to believe that it could happen to us too.
It is a fine line for the supporting roles. A Panda with historical knowledge of the ancient art yet without any actual experience has been proclaimed the savior of the valley against a monster of a foe. He is truly the ugly duckling and all those around him must straddle the division of chiding him and the absurdity of the situation, but not be too mean—there are kids watching. In order to keep a good grasp on this tenuous situation, the filmmakers cast a group of affable people with the ability to work in serious moments, but never relinquish the humorous edge to their voice. Guys like David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan are perfect for the roles of the true warriors attempting to reconcile their preconceptions of this screw-up swooping in and taking their thunder. Moments like the acupuncture scene really show this to be true. Jolie is good as Tigress, another fighter and prize student, but the role ends up being pretty forgettable and by the books. She never really gets the range to go crazy. Neither does Dustin Hoffman as the master and teacher to them all, yet he is a still a success. My favorite supporter was the great Ian McShane as Tai Lung, the villain of the tale. No one has a better voice for nefarious deeds than this guy and he delivers continuously.
As far as the story goes, it is a nice tale to teach the kids about faith and comradery. For us older folk, however, we are treated with some spectacular action/battle sequences to satisfy our want for more than just preaching. The chopstick fight between Hoffman and Black is fantastic, having comedy and tenacity with some nice artwork and fast paced movement. The battle on a rope bridge towards the end, as well as the final confrontation, is also highly enjoyable. Credit the entertainment to the acting and a gimmick that at first made me cringe. Throughout the film we are treated with slow-motion insertions during the action. A nod to old Kung Fu films and the satirical spoofs created as a result, I was thinking I’d grow tired of the maneuver very fast. Fortunately, as the movie continues on, the moments become sprinkled in with perfect timing. The escape from Rhino prison wouldn’t have been half as fun without the speed changes in the action and the slow-mo facial expressions of those getting thrown around. Even towards the end, the filmmakers began to use it as an original comedic device. Capturing Po’s reaction to a charging Tai Lung is absolutely priceless.
Kung Fu Panda is by no means a masterpiece, but for a cartoon that really flew under my radar, I had a lot of fun taking part in the experience. Right from the beginning, with a stylized 2D rendered sequence as an introduction, I saw that this wouldn’t be quite the run-of-the-mill work I was anticipating. Always staying fresh and funny I can fully endorse anyone wanting to check it out as a nice appetizer to what could be a fantastic main course in Pixar’s Wall-E come this summer.