Is there anything more fun than a cartoon panda who does kung fu with the slacker wit and squeezable charm of Jack Black? I totally think not! What I thought was going to be another throw-away animated feature from Dreamworks (I wish I could throw away memories of Shrek 3!) was instead an awesome movie with an all-star cast, and some superb CG visuals and action set-pieces.
Po the panda (voiced by Black) spends his time toiling in his father’s noodle shop, and fantasizing about becoming a kung fu master like his idols, the Furious Five — Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan!), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross). He’s their biggest fan and admires from a distance until one day opportunity (or is it destiny?) brings him the chance to make that dream come true. Po is faced with a number of challenges when they receive word that Tai Lung, a powerful snow leopard and kung fu master bent on revenge upon the village, has escaped from imprisonment. Y’see, Po is quite a fan of the martial arts, but untrained enthusiasm and pudgy naivete aren’t going to be enough to defeat Tai Lung.
The best thing about Black as Po is that he’s very likable. Face it, pandas are one of the cutest creatures on earth, so when you add to that the kind of bumbling lovability that Black brings you’ve got yourself a great “diamond in the rough”. He’s also incredibly funny, in that natural way that he has, which is good because he gets most of the funny moments. There are scenes of physical humour for the kids, and some more literate jokes that the kids won’t get (I could tell ‘coz they weren’t laughing — just me). The other actors are enjoyable too (especially Dustin Hoffman as Shifu the kung fu teacher), but their parts were not really as prominent and we didn’t spend enough time with them (without combat) for their personalities (and the personalities of the actors) to come through.
On the other hand, the animation came through loud and clear. Normally if the characters and backgrounds don’t look like they’re made of plastic, you’ve already achieved something in animation. One of the keys to rival studio Pixar’s success has been beyond-excellent animation. I think this time Dreamworks has come up to par with Pixar. The landscapes of misty Chinese mountains and stormy snowy chasms looked vivid and expansive. The interiors of the Jade Palace (where the kung fu masters lived and trained) looked gorgeous — like something out of a lavish Chinese epic. To top it all off, the fight scenes (obviously a huge part of a kung fu flick) were not only very well choreographed, but also fluid and kinetic. Sometimes the camera would slow down, other times it would make quick cuts, and other times we got sweeping angles from above or below. Every scene, from Po’s training montage (and chopstick duel with Shifu over dumplings), to the Furious Five’s battle with Tai Lung on a mountain bridge, was so captivating that I wish I’d seen this movie in IMAX.
Kung Fu Panda smacks a fresh coat of paint on the archetypal martial arts tale of the underdog who learns self-discipline by believing in himself to become his own master and save the day. It may not be as creative a story as Pixar might have told (see their upcoming 2008 blockbuster wall-e), but some delightful characters and the amazing fight scenes (which I don’t think have ever been done as well in an animated movie) more than make up for it. (5 out of 5)
What if I had made Kung Fu Panda?
I loved this movie, so there’s very little that I would have changed, but the name Po strikes me as a bit boring for a character who is pretty memorable. Maybe something like Ying-Fung (I know that’s not memorable, but that’s my Chinese name — hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying, right?). Also, I was really hoping for a more creative moral to the story. The whole self-reliance and “believe in yourself” theme has not only been done to death, it’s not very Chinese either. It’s kind of a Western ideal. Maybe I would have focused Po’s victory (oops! spoiler…. as if) on the ability to master oneself and achieve discipline — that seems a bit more fitting. But I don’t want to overstate. The only other thing I might have done differently is to trade in some of those conversations with master Shifu (and between Shifu and his own guru, Oogway) for more time with the Furious Five. As I said, the moral of the story is clear. We didn’t need to drive it home so hard. Instead, the side characters were pretty fun and they had a lot of appeal (remember those circus bugs from A Bug’s Life?). I would have spent the time to develop them more.