New Releases for the Week of August 11, 2017


ANNABELLE: CREATION

(New Line) Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Kerry O’Malley, Philippa Coulthard, Joseph Bishara. Directed by David F. Sandberg

The universe of The Conjuring adds some backstory as the demonic doll of the first film gets a prequel. A group of orphans moves into a large home where a dollmaker lives with his wife. The couple are still grieving their daughter who died in a tragic accident but when they are sure she wants them to make a doll for her to put her soul into. However, it’s not their beloved daughter in the doll but something far more malevolent.

See the trailer and San Diego Comic Con panel footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for horror violence and terror)

The Glass Castle

(Lionsgate) Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson. Based on the bestselling memoir of Jeanette Walls, reporter and former MSNBC gossip columnist, Jeanette grew up moving from place to place at the behest of her Bohemian father who firmly believed in living by his own set of rules. The effect that had on Jeanette and her family was both negative but also strangely positive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon, Regal Oviedo, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking)

The Nut Job: Nutty by Nature

(Open Road) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan. The nut-eating denizens of the Nut House suddenly find themselves homeless but manage to land on their feet in a wonderful park. When the mayor announces plans to erect an amusement park on the site, they must band together to save their new home.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action and some rude humor)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Brave New Jersey
City of Ghosts
The Lie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Amnesia
Brigsby Bear
Catastrópico
Footnotes
From the Land of the Moon
Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Once Upon a Time 3D
Pilgrimage
Step
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
The Veil
The Women’s Balcony

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Landline
Lie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Pilgrimage
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
The Veil
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

Endless Poetry
Jaya Janaki Nayaka
Landline
Lie
The Little Hours
Maudie
Mune: Guardian of the Moon
Nenu Raju Nene Mantri
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha
VIP 2: Vellaiyilla Pattathari

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Amnesia
Annabelle: Creation
Brave New Jersey
City of Ghosts
The Glass Castle
Landline

The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

New Releases for the Week of January 29, 2015


Kung Fu Panda 3KUNG FU PANDA 3

(DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Bryan Cranston. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni

Po is the most unlikely Kung Fu master in China, but he has built a great life. However, when his long-lost father appears, Po is whisked away to a hidden panda village, a paradise for the corpulent bears. However, there is trouble brewing; the demonic Kai has been resurrected and is sweeping across China, defeating all the Kung Fu masters in his wake. It will take an army to stop him – but all Po has is peace-loving dumpling-chomping pandas. Can he whip them into shape before Kai takes over all of China?

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promo video and premiere live stream footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for martial arts action and some mild rude humor)

50 Shades of Black

(Open Road) Marlon Wayans, Kali Hawk, Fred Willard, Mike Epps. The 50 Shades of Grey franchise gets the parody treatment from master comedian Marlon Wayans.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Parody
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong crude sexual content including some graphic nudity, and for language throughout)

The Finest Hours

(Disney) Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Eric Bana. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck the American east coast, causing the oil tanker S.S. Pendleton to break and half, trapping 30 men in the sinking stern. The nearest Coast Guard station sends out a rescue mission in a wooden lifeboat with an ill-equipped engine and virtually no navigation equipment to face hurricane force winds, 60 foot waves and freezing temperatures to reach the ship before time runs out. And yes, this really happened.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril)

Ip Man 3

(Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Lynn Hung, Jin Zhang, Mike Tyson. A crooked developer aims to take over the city and martial arts master Ip Man feels compelled to take a stand and right the wrongs being perpetrated against his neighbors. While the story is fiction, Ip Man was a real man who was Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of martial arts violence and brief strong language)

Jane Got a Gun

(Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich. A woman trying to leave her past behind her finds it hot on her trail again in the form of the ultra-violent Bishop Boys gang. With her husband badly injured and her family in peril, she turns to an ex-lover – a gunslinger – to protect her home and her family from certain destruction.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence and some action)

Lazer Team

(Rooster Teeth) Colton Dunn, Alan Ritchson, Burnie Burns, Allie DeBerry. When four video game-playing losers discover a UFO crash site, they unwittingly genetically bond with advanced battle suits which they will then have to put to good use defending the Earth which is really gonna need it – oh dear God the Earth is in so much trouble!

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material including references, language, action violence, teen partying and smoking)

The Spy Next Door


Jackie Chan's lost his nunchuks.

Jackie Chan’s lost his nunchuks.

(2010) Spy Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley, Magnus Scheving, Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez, Katherine Boecher, Mia Stallard, Maverick McWilliams, Quinn Mason, Margaret Murphy, Esodie Geiger, Arron Shiver, Lucas Till, Richard Christie, Kayleigh Burgess. Directed by Brian Levant

How many times have we seen this one – a divorced/widowed single dad/mom starts dating a new guy/gal who has special skills – i.e. a Navy Seal, a martial artist, a superspy. The kids are suspicious/hostile towards the new boyfriend/girlfriend and find many ways to discourage them from dating their parent/break up the relationship. For whatever contrived reason the boyfriend/girlfriend is left alone with the kids who stumble into/are caught in the middle of a dangerous situation. The boyfriend/girlfriend must rescue the kids/keep them safe and eventually they join forces to defeat the bad guy/girl.

This is pretty much the plot of this kid-centric spy. Bob Ho (Chan) is the boyfriend, a boring pen salesman who is really a Chinese spy working for the American government (which is a stretch of disbelief right there). He has recently defeated a Russian baddie (Scheving) who had developed a virus that breaks down petroleum. He intended to infect the world with it, forcing everyone to buy Russian petroleum at ludicrous prices. Why Paul Ryan didn’t think of this I’ll never know.

Anywho, the baddie is broken out by a kind of living Natasha Fatale named Creel (Boecher) and he’s keen to get the formula back and finish the job. The formula is tucked away safely on Bob’s laptop. Of course, the first rule of kidflicks is that one of the three kids (and there are always three) has to be a computer genius. Ian (Shadley), the middle kid, fits this bill. By the way, the other two kids are always an angst-y teen or pre-teen rebelling against everything and pissed off at everyone (Carroll) and a cute as a button princess (Foley). It is with this motley crew that Bob is left when his main squeeze – er, girlfriend – Gillian (Valletta) is called away on a family emergency.

Chan is getting on in years, as we all must but even at 55 (which is how old he was when he filmed this) he is still as entertaining an action hero as there has ever been. His comic timing is priceless, his physical gifts extraordinary. If he’s lost a step or two, and if he relies more on wires than jaw-dropping stunts, well, he’s earned the right. He’s done plenty of spy flicks in his native Hong Kong but the two Hollywood versions he’s done don’t hold a candle to them despite having much larger budgets.

Unfortunately, the buck pretty much stops there. The kids are more or less atrocious with the usually reliable Carroll playing surly, spoiled and bitchy which simply renders her character unwatchable. Carroll would  do much better work in pictures that followed this, particularly in Flipped. Valletta who’s also a decent actress has zero chemistry with Chan; one gets the feeling that they’re just friends without benefits; I can’t imagine the two of them sharing more than a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then again, this is a family film. Lopez and Cyrus as CIA buddies of Bob at least show up on time.

One of my big pet peeves is kid movies that treats kids like absolute morons. I get that playing to the kid fantasy of being in charge is a safe bet but even kids know that adults aren’t bumbling idiots from beginning to end and kid flicks generally portray them that way (moms are the sole exception and for good reason; piss off a mom and her brood won’t be seeing your movie). Nearly as high on the list is Hollywood’s complete fumbling of Chan. One of the great action heroes ever and basically was cast  either in buddy flicks or in hack job kidflicks. It’s like making an Avengers movie with the Hulk and having him stay as Bruce Banner the entire time. No wonder Chan grew disillusioned with Hollywood. I would too.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackie Chan.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Everything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon spy flick violence and a bit of rude humor that will delight the average six year old but might have their parents rolling their eyes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening montage is made up mostly of Chan’s Hong Kong-made spy movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Chan’s films traditionally show a gag reel of outtakes and pranks over the end credits; if you want to see it without the distraction of the credits, it’s here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.2M on a $28M production budget; the movie was just shy of making back it’s investment during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pacifier

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Stories We Tell

Kung Fu Panda


Kung Fu Panda

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the behind.

(2008) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne

 

Dreams are generally not handed to you. In order to achieve them, hard work and sacrifice is almost always required. The question becomes how much are you willing to give in order to make your dream come true – and is it worth it.

Po (Black) is a big, goofy panda who lives in the Valley of Peace. The animals there live in peace and harmony, overseen by the benevolent temple on the highest peak guarding the town from those who would cause harm. Therein dwell the Furious Five, a group of five kung fu warriors of world renown. Po worships them and dreams of being one of them. However, he is the son of Ping (Hong) a humble noodle shop owner whose secret ingredient makes his noodles better than anyone else and Ping knows that Po’s dream is foolishness itself.

Within the temple is the Dragon Scroll, a parchment which explains how to become the Dragon Warrior, the ultimate kung fu practitioner. Snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane) wants this scroll not to become the valley’s ultimate protector but to dominate and become a cruel tyrant, wreaking revenge on the master who spurned his dreams.

Tai Lung has escaped from his prison and means to take what would not be given to him. The temple announces that their venerated abbot Oogway (Kim) is going to select the Dragon Warrior who will be given the scroll and the power to protect the Valley. The entire village ascends the mountain to see who will be accorded this great honor. Po is sent by his father to go sell noodles at the temple.

Everyone assumes that one of the members of the Furious Five will be chosen – Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) or Crane (Cross). Maybe it will be their venerated master, Shifu (Hoffman). However when Oogway chooses Po, the entire village goes into shock. Surely there must be a mistake.

Po has no training and it appears, no aptitude for Kung Fu. What he seems to be best at is eating, and he does that pretty much non-stop. Shifu figures that he can discourage the young panda out of becoming the Dragon Warrior and thus allow one of his more deserving students to achieve that honor. However, Tai Lung is approaching and time is running short. Will Po stay and find his inner hero? Or will he leave and watch from the sidelines as one or all of the Furious Five save the day?

Of all the  CGI animated features I’ve seen this is my favorite that doesn’t begin with the Pixar logo. Yes, I understand its faults and shortcomings but for whatever reason I connect with it. Maybe because I’m quite Po-like – I love to eat, I dream about being a superhero and I have a pretty laid-back nature most of the time (that sound you just heard was Da Queen snorting). The animation is also pretty impressive, from the faux Chinese landscapes to the rippling fur on Shifu, Tigress and Tai Lung.

The story is a bit rote and predictable and certainly is aimed at the Nickelodeon set. There is a good deal of physical humor, much of it revolving around Po’s weight and clumsiness (which some might argue reinforces stereotypes about overweight people, not necessarily a message we want to send to kids). Also, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than Po, Sifu and Tigress. Even Tai Lung really is given a kind of cursory character background as to why he is a villain. Most of the non-feline Furious Five all kind of blend together. Makes me wonder if they could have done a Terrific Trio instead.

There are some moments of real beauty – one involving Oogway and peach blossoms – as well as some imaginative fight scenes (especially the one between Po and Shifu involving a dumpling and chopsticks). This is a pleasing film aesthetically, enough so that parents won’t get bored when watching it for the umpteenth time with their kids.

In fact, the movie is much like it’s protagonist – kind of dumb, kind of lovable and ultimately it just steals your heart. Even if you aren’t into the old chop sockey movies that are clearly the touchstone behind the genesis of Kung Fu Panda you’ll still get a kick out of this animated classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Nice work by Black, Hoffman and McShane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable story aimed squarely at less discerning audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some action sequences which might overwhelm the littlest tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most hit kid films, there are plenty. The DVD came as a stand-alone or in a two-pack with the short animated feature Secrets of the Furious Five. The original DVD included featurettes on how to make noodles like Mr. Ping and a kid-centric instruction manual on how to use chopsticks. There’s also a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a music video of the theme song, an animation video jukebox featuring songs from each of DreamWorks’ Animation Studio’s movies to that time, and a nice PSA  on saving wild pandas.  The two-pack also includes an instructional video on how to draw the characters from Kung Fu Panda, an interactive Dumpling Shuffle game, and fun featurettes on how to determine which Kung Fu fighting style is your own and how to figure out which sign of the Chinese zodiac you fall under. The Blu-Ray has all of these in addition to BD-Live downloadable content which includes a Day in the Life of an actual Shaolin monk and the opportunity to hear Po from various other language soundtracks. “Squidoosh” just sounds a whole lot of different in Swedish my friends.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $631.7M on a $130M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Tales From Earthsea

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan