Kung Fu Panda: Film Review

Directed by: M. Osborne & J. Stevenson, Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: B+

Come Academy Awards time, Oscar's got a bit of a decision to make. Up until this point, the Best Animated Feature category has usually leaned towards two pretty distinct spectrums: message films like the eco-perseverance nature of Finding Nemo and Happy Feet, or displays of oafish goofiness like Wallace and Gromit and Shrek. This year, Pixar's film du jour, Wall-E, has cornered the market on the "save the earth" typecast again with a cute little list of characters that say nary a word the entire film. It's a great animated feature with a good -- if forceful -- message to humanity underneath its enveloping chipperness.

Then, there's DreamWorks's Kung Fu Panda, a rich CG-animated spectacle featuring a plump panda named Po fumbling along as he becomes a kung-fu master. It carries a point, sure: anybody can do just about anything if they try hard enough and believe. It's a good message for the younger audience out there, one that the DreamWorks team has rustled up before. But that's not the big draw to Kung Fu Panda; with all its punchy, well-written dialogue, all its blooming heart, and all its lovely kung-fu essence and attitude, it becomes a work of sheer joy and vision that offers the most satisfying experience that you can have in front of an animated film this year -- or from the past couple of years. With the early splashes of Kung Fu Panda's marketing work, I'll admit my animation-loving excitement started to boil quick for DreamWorks' project, but there was still that concern that it might surrender adult attention to create more of a sugary substance for the young ones to chomp up. Thankfully, much in the vein of their big green ogre cash cow, that isn't the case.

Dreaming up Panda's basis was probably the easiest and most enjoyable part of the entire conceptualization process, as it takes a cornucopia of cliché kung-fu mannerisms and shamelessly combines them for one, giant uber-cliché of a story -- and, trust me, that's a very satisfying play. Our panda bear Po, voiced with instant recognition by Jack Black (School of Rock), works with his father (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China) in a noodle shop placed somewhere in ancient China. During the day, he's sucking in his gut while wiggling around tables and serving up delicious dishes to the customers. When he's not working, however, he's dreaming in ramped-up fanboy fashion of being a member of the Furious Five -- a group of kung-fu masters training to be the all-mighty Dragon Warrior. He's the classic stargazer with the noodle shop and his visible appearance as the invisible ceiling that keeps him pinned down from his desires.

There's classic cinematic and martial arts influence at play in the Five's appearance, stuff that'll soak right into genre fans' vision at blunt sight while developing quickly with the younger audience. Their animal species mirror some of the more renowned combat styles featured in rough-and-tumble kung-fu cinema: Tiger (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Forbidden Kingdom), Mantis (Seth Rogen, 40 Year Old Virgin), Crane (David Cross, Men in Black), and Viper (Lucy Liu, Kill Bill) are all matched to their vocal talents with seamless precision and given just enough dialogue per character to capture a little wedge of the film. Atop a huge mountain with many a stair leading up to their hideout, they train under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man), a rare red panda that looks like a chinchilla / raccoon hybrid. Oh, and their "grand" master is a slow-speaking, all-knowing tortoise named Oogway who, at the Dragon Warrior ceremony, accidentally appoints the plump noodle-serving Po as the all-powerful kung-fu master.

I know, could've seen that from a Great Wall of China's distance out, right? Don't worry; DreamWorks know that, and they plan on playing off that familiarity. From there, Kung Fu Panda whips together a checklist of all these entertaining typecasts and formulaic turns for the martial arts genre -- the early ridicule of the eager yet daft disciple, the jealousy blooming from more qualified students, the training sequences -- and pumps them full of energy and age-sprawling humor that fails to let up amid its confetti-blast gorgeous animation. It's just a splendid, enthralling good time that has enough brains to know when the humor should be brainless and not, and more than enough heart to know when to be sentimental -- which, in a genre that can easily teeter-totter between child and adult focus, is the picture of splendid execution.

DreamWorks Animation persistently struggles to cross one giant hurdle -- keeping their projects' vigor buoyant enough for nearly an hour and a half, an issue that even wiggles into the beloved Shrek films. For others, like Shark Tale and Madagascar, they lose their energy quick and become mere eye candy for kids waiting to gobble it up. Kung Fu Panda, with its host of charismatic, pitch-perfect vocal entities and engagingly incensed action, keeps the momentum surging forward from start to finish in a way that proves DreamWorks has learned from past mistakes. It's a bouquet of slapstick humor and dizzying martial arts action, all of which flows in a fashion that gives the animation enough compelling attitude to balance between fantasy and tangibility until the credits roll.

But what's surprising is how effective Kung Fu Panda can be as an action flick. It swings on the subplot revolving around Master Shifu's former disciple Tai Lung, voiced with raspy gravitas by Ian McShane, as he breaks out from imprisonment to claim his position as the Dragon Warrior. That scene, riddles with tough-as-nails rhinos led by a Michael Clark Duncan-voiced leader, offers a wallop of a gripping action sequence as massive stalactites and flying arrows thwart the furious snow tiger's efforts. His rapid approach to the kung-fu training grounds -- fueled with rage and fighting skill that only the "Dragon Warrior" could defeat -- becomes a great bridge between the silly "beat on Po until he weakens" dynamic and the semi-serious training work that accompanies all martial arts flicks.

Training sequences are always entertaining, but I specifically enjoyed this one with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman playing off of each other. DreamWorks stretches their animation legs to create some rather stunning skylines and depth-of-field renderings during these scenes which, much like Kill Bill Vol. 2, pay homage to great sequences from 36th Chamber of Shaolin to Enter the Dragon that involve the struggles of "eating food", practicing a rehearsed series of stances (kata), and developing the student's all-around skill and spiritual development. It builds to Po's big foreseeable transition which, in refreshing manner, doesn't necessarily paint the portrait of flawlessness -- but does possess a natural rhythm about its formulaic turns.

Hats off to the studio for digging deep into their collective imagination to mold a real hit out of all these grand influences and robust blasts of energy; sure, Over the Hedge and a few of their secondary efforts outside of the Shrek franchise have garnered scattered family praise, but none of them have been able to take off and have the kind of longevity that Kung Fu Panda will probably have. It's hard not to love all the rambunctious action and magnetic plush-animal characters, especially when it seems perfectly crafted to carry Jack Black's unique vocal style. Simply, Kung Fu Panda's blast of a premise could've gone either of two ways, and I'm glad that it decided to invite and entertain the moms, pops, and lovers of great animation to its whimsical liveliness. It's more than deserving of Best Animated Feature accolades, even if it'll probably play second banana once award season rolls around. But no matter -- I'm still rooting for the big, fluffy panda.


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