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

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Top 5 Animated Features


While Planet 51 is something of a disappointment, animated features have been a major part of the Hollywood landscape since 1939 and with the advent of computer animation have become even more of a dominant force at the box office. While Pixar Studios has dominated both in terms of quality and box office, nearly every major studio has an animated division and the quality of some of these studios has been growing both in terms of animation and storytelling, with DreamWorks animation leading the way. Still, Disney and Pixar are the 400 pound gorillas of the genre, and when most aficionados come together to discuss their favorites, those two studios are going to receive the lion’s share of attention.

HONORABLE MENTION

While cartoon shorts had been a part of the landscape since the silent era, it wasn’t until Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) that Walt Disney thought to make a full-length movie of a cartoon. Even now, nearly 75 years later, the movie holds up. The hand-drawn artwork is simply astonishing in its beauty; Disney made sure that the first animated feature, a calculated gamble, had no expense spared. It remains one of the most beautiful animated features ever drawn. Shrek (2001) established DreamWorks Animation as a major player in the field and would inspire three sequels, paving the way for movies like Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. Peppered with pop culture references and sly satire, the fairy tale gone hideously wrong sported an all-star cast and impressive animation in becoming the most successful feature animated franchise of all time. Akira (1988), based on one of Japan’s most honored comic books (manga) of all time would set the standards for anime, the uniquely Japanese form of animation. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the original manga, the finely-detailed world of Neo-Tokyo would become a hallmark of the kind of animation that would come out of Japan for the next two decades. A live action version of the movie has been in the works for decades but so far nothing has come of it. Finally, Bambi (1942) bears a personal place on this list – it is the first movie I ever saw in a theater, way back in 1964 when I was just four. Even today, I find myself entranced by the lush, verdant forest scenes and feel the tears welling up when Bambi’s mother is shot.

5. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

 

Animated features had always been somewhat looked down upon by critics and the Hollywood mainstream as “kids stuff” and ghettoized in that fashion – until this movie became the first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It was the last movie to be worked on by composer Howard Ashman who passed away before the film was released, and features beautiful music and a timeless story. This was a movie to truly recapture Disney magic and is as good if not better than their classic animations, most of which could easily be on this list but this one was special. It also was a precursor to things to come with extensive digital animated sequences, including the ballroom scene depicted here, as well as hand-drawn animation. This is the favorite of many families, including ours.

4. THE PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

 

There are other works of Hayao Miyazaki that are better known and quite frankly, better respected than this one but it is this fantasy film that brought me into his world and has kept me there ever since. Miyazaki is perhaps the most respected animator working today and certainly one of the best ever to come out of Japan. In this allegory that depicts the conflict between nature and technology, he brings fantastic characters to life in an almost fable-like setting with hints of science fiction and high fantasy throughout. It’s a masterful work not only of animation but of storytelling as well, and while it never received the acclaim his other works (such as Spirited Away and Ponyo) got, it nonetheless is my favorite of his both sentimentally and critically.

3. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

 

 It’s no secret that I’m a comic book junkie, particularly of the superhero variety. Yes, I love all those spandex wearing characters from DC to Marvel and when Pixar decided to make a feature length film about a superhero team that was also a family, I was over the moon to say the least. The final product didn’t disappoint. My initial fears that the genre would be disrespected and dumbed down (as other films like Zoom and Sky High had done) were groundless; this was clearly a labor of love that not only poked gentle fun at the genre but also told a compelling story about family dynamics changed by the advent of great powers. Something like the Fantastic Four done for the Family Channel with a villain straight out of a hip James Bond movie, I was enchanted by every moment of this movie which remains one of my all time superhero favorites.

2. FANTASIA (1940)

 

The idea of animation as a work of art had never really been as explored quite as completely as it did on this film, which was one of Walt Disney’s pet projects and clearly something close to his heart. Vignettes set to classical music pieces (such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain) used whimsical Disney imagery to create a breathtaking work that elevates as it entertains. In many ways, Fantasia is a cultural landmark although it was never a commercial success; today it is best remembered for the one vignette featuring Mickey Mouse – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which was spun off into its own movie that had very little to do with the original. A sequel, Fantasia 2000 came out just in time for the new Millennium; while it captured the spirit of the original, it wasn’t quite as impressive.

1. UP (2009)

 

Only the second animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, this movie has clearly elevated the bar for animated features. Very few movies can walk the fine line between appealing to children and telling a sophisticated story that will stimulate adults, but this one does, creating timeless entertainment in the process. The opening montage telling the story of balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen and his wife Ellie is both charming and poignant and was one of the most memorable moments in the movies last year. It cements Pixar’s position as the most innovative studio of any sort out there, churning out high quality films year after year. Whether they can ever produce a movie this good again is almost irrelevant; the fact that they proved that it can be done has changed the standards for animated movies from disposable kids stuff to important cinema for everyone.