The five Kung Fu Masters have been training since birth to ready their bodies and minds in preparation for the upcoming millennium ceremony that will crown one of them the venerated Dragon Master. Under the skilled tutelage of Head Master Sifu (Dustin Hoffman), Masters Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane have the discipline and fortitude necessary to take on any challenge – except one. Enter Po (Jack Black), the laziest and fattest creature in all of ancient China. Raised from birth to take over the family noodle shop, he’s a kung fu otaku at heart with dreams of glory that match his oversized belly. Recipe for disaster? You bet, but certainly one of the tastiest and more entertaining films this summer. Yeah, I’m shocked too.
Kung Fu Panda is the latest (and possibly greatest) work from Dreamworks Animation, who for years have always played second fiddle in the world of CG animation to Disney and Pixar’s lesser works. But after a string of questionable work stuffed to the gills with celebrity voices and pop-culture references, the powerhouse company may have finally found their comfort zone (after Shrek) and could possibly signal what the future has in store. If their closest competitor, Pixar Animation, is gunning to pick up the reigns of Uncle Walt, then Dreamworks has probably realized there’s nothing wrong with following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones, Schlesinger, and the rest of their Merry Melodies.
Anthropomorphizing these legendary themes is a smart choice visually, as the very best kung fu flicks from the past reference them to frequently. Generally this translates into some of the best and most well-designed characters I’ve seen recently. In bringing this kung fu tale to life, the artists behind the scenes have crafted some truly incredible sights and sounds, with amazing character work and depth of character. Oogway the wise, sagely turtle is a work of genius and is a great representation of the attention to detail and heart at work here. When everything is working onscreen, its magical and one of the most visually pleasing films I’ve seen in years, quite the shocker when you consider how its been packaged and sold to audiences. Walk in without prejudice and you’ll come rolling out a fan.
Typically when Dreamworks casts one of their animated films, its marquee-name first, talent second. Gloriously that tradition is broken here (mostly) as the spotlight is first and foremost on the vocal wizardry of its main characters. The results are a finely crafted piece of proper animated storytelling, which wisely allows the personalities of its performers to steal the show when all cylinders are firing away. Jack Black as Panda Po is…well, he’s Jack Black. Certainly his best work since School of Rock, Black is a gifted comedian with impeccable timing, and while he often shows up in films that underutilize him, here the funnyman delivers the goods and is hilarious. He’s back, he’s fat, but don’t let the padding fool ya! Squadoosh!
Dustin Hoffman has a great time as Head Master Shifu and straight man to Black’s Po. Like Black, the veteran actor has a gift for the funny, and its great to see him really cut loose here. The rest of the main cast is a good mix of popular and indie talent, with the likes of Angelina Jolie (Master Tigress), Lucy Liu (Master Viper) playing nice with David Cross (Master Crane) and Seth Rogen (Master Mantis). While it was wonderful to hear James Hong (Mr. Ping) again, Jackie Chan (Master Monkey) was a missed opportunity…loved the character, but I can’t remember if he spoke more than three lines.
Also, I’d be doing everyone a disservice if I didn’t single out two performances in particular, neither of which I was looking forward to going in, much less even aware of. Ian McShane (Deadwood) is masterful and absolutely thrilling as the evil and power-starved Tai Lung. His portrayal of the denied Dragon Warrior was surprisingly intense, and vicious to the point of being downright scary. During one especially animated scene I heard a few kiddies in the theater start balling their eyes out – scary stuff! On the flip side is Randall Duk Kim (The Matrix Reloaded) and his delicate, but wise Oogway the turtle. Seldom is mass-market voice acting this spot-on great, and when considering the heavy dialogue these characters chant throughout, I couldn’t help but feel Panda’s ambitions ran much, much deeper. Extraordinary stuff.
As a lifelong fan of animation in all its forms, Kung Fu Panda made me very, very happy. The film starts out with a cell-shaded homage to the best moments in Shaw Brothers Kung Fu history (look ’em up), and when the main course starts, never lets up. I’ve always had faith in Dreamworks Animation to deliver the goods, but nothing could have prepared me for the spectacular look and feel with what’s up on the screen. There’s a particular texture at play here, brought to surreal life in a fully realized and complex fantasy land China populated by rabbits, geese, and more than a few pigs. My first thought was Robin Hood (Disney 1973 version) meets The Incredibles, remixed to the very best early Jackie Chan cinematic adventures. There’s such a divergence of styles and attitude, explosions of color and action that the result isn’t just the best looking Dreamworks film, but one that rivals (aesthetically) the best Pixar has put together. Your eyeballs will thank you.
The film’s musical score, with shared duties between Hans Zimmer and John Powell (who incidentally both worked previously on White Fang) gets the job done reasonably well and never sounds stale or rehashed. Both composers have roots in animation that run deep, with The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Antz, and Shrek between them. Good stuff, and helps serve as a powerful companion to the stunning animation. Also, the classic “Kung Fu Fighting” redo by the amazing Gnarls Barkley accomplished the impossible by making the song fun and relevant again – amazing!
Kung Fu Panda is a breath of fresh air for Dreamworks Animation, and depending how they handle their increasingly excellent animated line-up, fans can point to this gem as a pivotal moment. Vastly better than 90% of its family-friendly animated competition (and miles better than Shrek the Third), Panda is a fun and intensely fun to watch piece of work that should appeal to just about everyone in the family. Animation fans will be in heaven with some of the cleanest, most fluid and artist examples of the art form ever put on-screen, and I’d really like to hang out with these characters again. Kudos to everyone involved for one of the best movies this summer…believe it!
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