Review by KC Carlson
A film full of messages, both stated and implied, Kung Fu Panda was one of the top grossing and most popular animated features of this past summer. But its most important statement may be its message that having a good heart is more important than all the skill in the world.
Pitted in box office battle with Pixar’s WALL-E (review coming soon) and now matched against it again for DVD domination, Kung Fu Panda may have been perceived as the animated “big summer blockbuster action movie” as opposed to WALL-E‘s more unconventional structure and cerebral nature. But that’s really selling Kung Fu Panda short — it’s a quantum leap forward in technical aspects, story, character design, and emotional content from any of the other DreamWorks productions before it. (Yeah, the Shreks are funny, but…) Thinking of it as just a kid-oriented, big-fight movie is wrong, yet it manages to encompass those elements as well.
The Characters and Cast
The film’s central character is Po, a very large, awfully clumsy, but eager-to-please panda bear played by the occasionally large, occasionally clumsy, but always eager-to-please Jack Black. Po leads an unexciting but good life with his noodle-loving father (James Hong), helping out in the family restaurant. Po’s one bit of excitement is his rich fantasy life. He harbors a fanboy-like intensive love of kung fu and of the leading practitioners of the discipline, the Furious Five. His bedroom is filled with posters and statues of the Five and he knows all their secrets as well as everything there is to know about kung fu. He dreams of one day becoming a great practitioner in the discipline, but his size and clumsiness prevent him from achieving the goal.
The Five live and train in a nearby academy located “a thousand steps” above the Valley of Peace, trained by the tiny red panda, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). (From JDC — he’s a miniature panda? He looks like a rat! Or maybe I’m thinking of Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.) Shifu’s trainer, tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has a vision that Shifu’s former disciple, the now-evil snow leopard warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane), will soon escape from prison and return to menace the Village. Oogway orders a ceremony to find the Dragon Warrior, a kung fu master and the only one who can defeat Tai Lung. It is assumed that one of the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), or Crane (David Cross) — will be chosen.
The ceremony is open to the public, so Po attends, hoping to see his heroes in action. In his clumsy attempts to see the ceremony, he accidentally becomes a part of the event, and Master Oogway surprisingly chooses Po to become the Dragon Warrior. Despite Shifu’s pleas to reconsider and Po’s protests, Oogway’s word is law.
Shifu, frustrated at the thought of trying to train the clumsy, unqualified Po, instead attempts to make him quit by humiliating and berating him. The Five also dismiss him. After getting advice from Oogway, Po decides to stay and increases his efforts, although it is difficult. Slowly, some of the Five warm to him, as he impresses them with his determination, good humor, and his superior cooking skills!
Oogway’s premonition eventually comes true and Tai Lung escapes from prison. Deciding that Po is just not the fighter to defeat Tai Lung, Tigress goes off to engage him in battle herself. The rest of the Five follow her, leaving only Shifu and Po to protect the Village. Eventually, Shifu realizes that Po can be motivated by food — or more properly, the denial of food — which results in an amazing and hysterical parody of the usual “training sequence” in films of this type. And, of course, after much intensive training, Po becomes the warrior that he always dreamed of. It’s just in time, as the Five have gone down in defeat in battle with Tai Lung, and he’s on his way to the village! Unfortunately, Po is seemingly denied a promised magical gifting of special power. His confidence shattered, he returns to the Village to aid his father in fleeing from the threat, only to discover that his father has his own magical gift to offer to Po.
The History of Its Creation
Originally conceived by DreamWorks as a cartoon parody of kung fu action movies, directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne wisely rejected this in favor of a straightforward comedy/action storyline, inspired by films such as Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and anchored by the performance of Jack Black’s central character, Po. The script, by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, added much heart and emotion to the mix.
Kung Fu Panda was DreamWorks’ first cinemascope computer-generated (CG) movie, and I believe, its first IMAX presentation (which is the way I first saw it). The animators take full advantage of this, either filling the screen with so much detail that some jokes were lost (as revealed in the director’s commentary), or by using the extra space to expand on their brilliant layout and design. The CG is fantastic, so much so that their first character structures (computerized skeletons) broke down under the stress of the fast and furious action and had to be rebuilt. And the opening “dream” sequence, done in highly-stylized 2-D (regular) animation, is anime-inspired and stunning in its effect. The film is DreamWorks’ most beautiful animated film to date.
And it’s wildly funny to boot! Pairing the manic Jack Black against a sputtering, fuming Dustin Hoffman is brilliant in a Chuck Jones/Michael Maltese sort of way. It was no surprise to hear that there was much ad-libbing in the recording booth — especially by Black and Seth Rogan — and that a good amount of it made it to the final product. The now cliché slo-mo and still-frame shots pinched from any number of classic kung fu movies is twisted to huge comedy effect here, especially in comic contortions of Po’s face and body in nearly every battle scene.
Kung Fu Panda is a very special movie, one of those very few that is able to rise above its mundane origins and capture the attention of an entire world. And yet, it feels like an intensely personal story. To date, the film has grossed over $630 million dollars worldwide. An eagerly awaited sequel, tentatively titled Pandamonium, is scheduled for the summer of 2011.
The Special Features
The DVD features a mixed bag of special features. On the downside is a very boring video for a remake of “Kung Fu Fighting” done by Cee-Lo, with a couple of inserts of Jack Black. What’s worse is that it’s filled with preteen dancers, making the whole thing look like filler from the Disney Channel. I suppose DreamWorks felt that had to do something like that, considering one of the other lame-ish special features: a “video jukebox” of musical clips from most of the other DreamWorks CG films. Ironically, Kung Fu Panda makes a very good case for not having to stop in the middle of the movie for a happy, sing-along, feel-good remake of a song that was popular over 20 years ago (like they do in every movie). Instead, they went with an excellent score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. And yes, “Kung Fu Fighting” is playing over the end credits of the film, but there’s nobody dancing and the cast isn’t singing along. It just plays over the masterful and elegant graphics and credits.
Much better are the “Meet the Cast”, “Pushing the Boundaries”, and “Sound Design” mini-features (although they feel a little like warmed-over EPK (electronic press kit) material). I did enjoy watching the sound effects guys trying to create a unique sound with a plunger and someone’s head. The “Dragon Warrior Training Academy” game is harder than it looks (which is good), and the “How To Use Chopsticks” feature managed to teach me how to do it in three minutes flat, as opposed to countless real-life lessons from friends which never quite worked out. But the absolute best feature on the disk is “Mr. Ping’s Noodle House”, where Alton Brown, Food Channel’s resident goofball (Good Eats, Iron Chef America), hosts a fascinating featurette about how noodles are made. Culinary magic, indeed!
The film is available in both full-screen and widescreen editions, as well as in the Blu-ray format. It is also available as a two-pack bundled with Secrets of the Furious Five, a kid-oriented feature starring the popular supporting characters. Jack Black returns as Po in CG-animated segments where Po reveals the Five’s stories. Dustin Hoffman, David Cross, and Randall Duk Kim also return to voice their characters. (The other characters are mostly shown in flashback, as younger characters, and are voiced by other voice actors).
Secrets of the Furious Five
As Secrets of the Furious Five begins, Master Shifu tells Po that today he must face one of his greatest challenges — which turns out to be a couple of dozen little kid rabbits, Shifu’s Introduction to Kung Fu class. Shifu then departs, locking Po in with the the kids, who, being kids, have a bazillion questions. Po decides to entertain — as well as educate — the kids by telling stories about their idols, the Furious Five, from the time before they were fearsome warriors. They learn that the lessons of patience, courage, confidence, control, and compassion made the Five who they are today.
The flashback sequences are quite fun, done in a 2-D animation style similar to the opening dream sequence from the original film. Mantis learns the benefits of slowing down and thinking. Crane, a lowly janitor at a fighting academy, gains confidence to try out for the school after a cute girl student encourages him. Tigress was ultimately saved from a sad fate after being trained by Shifu. Monkey learns a thing or two after encountering Master Oogway. But the best battle cry goes to the young, born-without-fangs Viper with her “I don’t have to bite to fight!” victory cry, defending her overprotective father. This 25-minute feature is charming and cute. Kids will love it!
The special features on this disc will also keep your kids occupied for hours, either learning to draw the characters, dancing the Panda Dance, discovering the secrets behind the Animals of Kung Fu, mastering basic kung fu stances and moves, experiencing the history of the Chinese Zodiac, discovering What Fighting Style Are You?, and learning three-card-monte, errr… “Dumpling Shuffle”.
Secrets of the Furious Five comes bundled with Kung Fu Panda. It is not available separately. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)